American, Offline

Things are going pretty well for America Online lately. It has those ubiquitous TV commercials. It’s walking around with $1 billion of Google’s money. And it still boasts somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million subscribers, depending on who’s doing the counting.

Only for the first time since 1994, I’m not one of them.

Last week, I ended my 11-year membership at AOL, an association I normally keep under wraps since no admission will earn you pointed looks faster, except for maybe telling people you’ve spent time in prison for tax fraud or that you own a Backstreet Boys album. I will say, in my defense, that when I signed up for AOL nearly three olympiads ago, I was living in a one-room cabin up in the mountains of Southern California, with only a dial-up connection to keep me hooked up with the outside world. At that particular point in time, AOL offered me an easy and relatively cheap way to stay in touch with friends and family too far-flung to come visit me in my Unabomber-esque digs.

And since that time, I’ve stuck with AOL because of…well, inertia, really. I kept AOL installed largely if I ever traveled to some place with limited Internet access. But with many hotels now offering in-room Internet service—for free, a lot of the time—and wireless access never more than a Starbucks T-Mobile Hotspot away, AOL’s place as my Internet Provider of Last Resort has grown increasingly shaky.

Really, AOL only has itself to blame. In recent years, AOL’s updates of its Mac-based client have gotten increasingly sporadic—the last major one came in 2003—and my use of the service has become equally infrequent. In the past six months, I think I’ve launched AOL 10 times, and nine of those were because I clicked on the wrong icon in my Dock. When I have used AOL, I’ve noticed an unacceptable uptick in unexpected quits and appearances by the Spinning Beachball, so performance hasn’t really been up to snuff. Add to that the fact that AOL’s most recent focus has been on offering fixes to problems that, mercifully, don’t affect Mac users as of yet (spyware and the like), and now seemed as good a time as any to sever my AOL ties.

The only trouble is, it is easier to dump a romantic partner than it is to cancel your AOL membership—especially if the rapidity with which my ex-girlfriends handed me my walking papers is any sort of benchmark.

The most substantial hurdle, of course, is actually finding a way to tell AOL you’re moving on—there’s no actual method of canceling your membership when you’re signed on to the service. Instead, AOL requires that you call them up—to save other disaffected Mac-using AOL members from largely fruitless searches that I endured, the number is 888/265-4042—or, if you like to party like it’s 1989, send a cancelation request by fax or snail mail.

I understand the nominal reason for routing things like membership cancelations to the phone—it cuts down on the chances that some nefarious-minded person could log on as you and terminate your service against your wishes. But it’s worth noting that requiring a phone call from paying customers who want out also gives AOL one last chance to beg you to reconsider—which is what happened to me when the very polite service representative tried to sell me on AOL’s broadband service.

Still, the forced conversation with AOL service reps was not without its highlights.

“How can I help you have a better Internet today?” the services rep asked cheerily at the start of our phone call.

“By canceling my AOL membership,” I replied just as cheerily. I wasn’t trying to be a wisenheimer, but if AOL is going to hang a pitch right over the plate…

I wasn’t expecting the navigation of AOL’s telephone tree—seven minutes of the world’s most irritating voice-navigation menu before I managed to reach a real, live human being—to be the most formidable challenge to giving AOL the ol’ heave-ho. In fact, I thought the bigger problems would be making sure all my e-mail would find its way to my new online home and that my iChat screen name wouldn’t fade into the ether after I pulled the AOL plug.

The former is a bigger challenge than you might realize, especially when you’ve had the same e-mail address for more than a decade. Sure, it’s easy enough to notify the people you e-mail regularly that they better update their address book. More difficult is handling the e-mail that you take for granted—newsletters, online notifications, and the like. For instance, American Airlines sends out e-mail notifications should they ever change your flight times. The e-mail address American has on file for me? My now-dormant AOL address. Which was rather unfortunate when my departure time on a flight from Oakland to Tampa changed suddenly about a week ago. I don’t know how many other e-mails are going to be affected by my switch-over, but I have a sinking suspicion I’m going to find out at the most inconvenient times imaginable.

The iChat screen name also promised to be a thorny issue. I use iChat every day to communicate with remote colleagues, freelancers, and even co-workers in the same bureau when shouting across the office simply won’t do. Since my iChat and AOL names are one and the same, I imagined a significant interruption in regular communications after a vengeful AOL erased all traces of my virtual existence.

Turns out I needn’t have worried. As the helpful telephone rep explained to me, AOL recently altered its policy to allow departed subscribers to retain their screen names for instant messaging. I can even continue retrieving e-mail from AOL’s Web site. I just can’t log on to take advantage of any of the other services AOL offers to its members, the actual names of which escape me at the moment. It’s a nice gesture by AOL, the kind of user-friendly service that almost makes me a little remorseful about handing AOL its walking papers after 11 relatively amicable years.

Almost . But not quite.

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