AOL and the nature of religious belief


My mom has finally decided to give up AOL, after 10 years, and helping her through this transition has been a profoundly educational experience for me. For one thing, it has given me some insights about conservative evangelical Christianity.

AOL is a service that provides end-to-end access to internet content. This means that AOL acts in several different roles simultaneously:

  • AOL is the “internet service provider” (the company that lets you connect to computers on the internet)
  • AOL is the “browser application” (the program that you click on and run in order to get the content)
  • AOL is the “email service” (the online service that lets you send and receive email)
  • AOL is a “web portal” (the website from which you usually start your browsing to get to other parts of the web)

Back in the 1990’s, when the internet was young, this was seen as being a very good thing for the end-user. Why make an end user worry or care about these distinctions? They want to be able to send and receive email, period. Why should they care about the various “moving parts” that are going on (“under the hood,” so to speak) in order to make that happen? They shouldn’t! So AOL will simply do it all for them. AOL was the equivalent of a “boom box” with a built in radio, tape deck, and CD player: everything you could possibly want in one easy package.

Of course this meant that when a person’s email wasn’t functioning, or they could not access the five-day weather forecast in their browser, the end user experience was identified thus: “AOL is broken.”

As time went on, that became more and more of a problem. AOL developed a terrible reputation for customer service, but this was partly the fault of their original business (and technological) model. If all the user knows is that they “get email from AOL,” then all they will know when it stops working is “AOL is broken.” This means, people began to realize, that the actual technician on the line has an absolute nightmare of a time trying to figure out whether their internet connection is bad, their browser is buggy, or their email service isn’t working, and so on. The user doesn’t know, and the user can’t explain, because the user literally does not make the mental distinction between those things.

But still AOL stuck to this model. Why? For one thing, it is a business strategy known as “lock-in”, which is a very effective (if unpopular) was of retaining customers. If you provide everything for the user, and go one step beyond that to make sure that your users don’t even fully understand all of the different things that you are providing, then you have an amazing amount of leverage to prevent them from turning to anyone else. Because in the mind of the user, giving up one of the services that AOL provides translates into “giving up AOL”… at which point the user thinks: “That means giving up the internet.”

The hypothetical conversation goes something like this:

Alternative Advocate: You should try Gmail. They let you keep all of the emails you’ve ever sent and received forever, and managing your contact lists is much easier than on AOL.
AOL User: But wouldn’t that mean giving up AOL? Then I wouldn’t be able to go into the chat rooms any more!

By making the user think it’s an “all-or-nothing” deal, AOL prevents users from even considering giving up any one service because it raises the scary specter of “losing everything.”

But despite all of this, my mom—who is in her 70’s and has been using AOL for 10 years—has finally decided to make the leap. What I found most interesting was how deeply being “trained on AOL” actually affected the very core of how she thought about the internet. It was something that was revealed to me in conversations like this one:

mom: Well, now that I am using Gmail to connect to the internet…
me: Actually, you’re using Time Warner to connect to the internet, Gmail is just for email.
mom: OK, fine. But with AOL, as soon as I logged in there was a button that I could click to see the weather. How do I use Gmail to get to the weather?
me: Well, you’re using Internet Explorer, actually, not Gmail…
mom: (annoyed) Well, whatever. How do I do it?

Now, my mom is an extremely intelligent woman, and so she picked up on the “new way” of things very quickly and these conversations subsided. But the initial transition period was very educational for me, because it showed me exactly how deeply being locked into an AOL-like way of thinking affected the way she thought about the internet and her relationship to it. And, although she will defend AOL to this day (Stockholm Syndrome?) I firmly believe that it the overall effect of AOL’s “packaging” of the user experience is negative, in the end, for the user.

Now, it’s important to point out (and my mom would want me to say it, anyway) that none of this means that AOL is “evil”. Providing end-to-end service is a valid business model. In many ways, it makes good business sense. If nothing else, it absolutely encourages customer retention. And back in the 1990’s, in the early days of public internet access, there were completely good reasons for thinking that this is what people wanted. Neither the public nor the business industry was very sophisticated or knowledgeable about what would work best. How could they be? Public access to the internet was brand-spanking new.

All of which brings me to the analogy that I mentioned at the top of this article.

Certain styles of conservative organized religious belief (and I used evangelical Christianity only as an example) have historically functioned much like AOL: they package everything you could possibly want an answer to in one, all-purpose service provider. Do you want to know what’s “natural”? The Church will tell you. Do you want to know what’s “right”? The Church can tell you that as well. In fact, usually they are the same thing. Do you want to know what’s legal? For large stretches of human history, the answer to that question was the same, as well! The Church was able to bundle a large number of different “roles” together, in much the same way that AOL did. The Church was “science”, “morality”, “history” and “law”, and the answers that they provided conditioned people to not even see that there might be a different between these different things.

In a very real way, the confusion that is experienced by AOL users who are trying to adapt to having separate Email, Browser, and ISP providers is the same type of confusion that is experienced by an orthodox religious believer when having to experience a modern-day discourse on separation of church and state, or the difference between science and faith. They just don’t get it—and not because they are stupid, and not because religion is evil. It is simply because it is not the way they have been trained to think.

I think this is an important point to make, because I know a number of “enlightened” atheists who dismiss the deeply religious as either stupid or as having been bamboozled by a malevolent and sinister organization (The Church) that wants secretly to do them harm.

But look one last time to the case of AOL, and users like my mom. AOL had the best of intentions at the time. It was doing what it thought would be easiest for people: providing everything in one neat package, and relieving them of the need to cleanly distinguish between complicated and often troubling details. They were intending to do good. And it is only now, after many years of use, that we (the community of internet users) have evolved enough to step away from that and realize that we are better off when we do understand the details.

Of course, AOL had a huge following. And people hate change. There are still 5 million AOL users out there (of course, that’s down from a peak of over 25 million in 2002), and many of them hate the idea of giving up the thing they are used to. My mom, until a few days ago, was one of those people. So it will take a long time to phase AOL out completely.

We can only hope it takes fewer than 2000 years.