AOL, Content King? How the Original New Media Success Hopes to Do it Again

Whether the generation raised on AOL: ISP as internet aquarium will bite at AOL:content king remains to be seen, but the acquisition of The Huffington Post certainly brings the company closer to its long-lost users than it has been for a while.
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And so we meet again, AOL. I remember when you were just a Version 3.0 running on my best friend's Windows 3 PC. I remember your ubiquitous free disks, first floppy, then compact, the sting of still not having you and the joy of my parents' new subscription. As Alice Munro might say, you were a friend of my youth.

So much has changed for both of us since we last spent time together. The aughts were a strange decade, weren't they? Remember adult contemporary radio? I want to say, old chum, that I think your current content strategy makes a lot more sense than your famous move into Old Media did. These are the kinds of deals it would have been perfect for you to make back then, had content streams like The Huffington Post and many of the other sites you've since acquired existed circa 1999. Back then, DiaryLand and LiveJournal did not look the forerunners of the world we live in now, but 2011 means you can party like Time Warner never happened. Great internet New Media properties are everywhere and you're gobbling them up like Pac-Man on a ghost binge.

I really do think your strategy here makes sense. I'm going to refer to you in the third person for the rest of this post if you don't mind (AOL, remember Norm MacDonald? Remember me trying to load Oasis videos? You just kept right on buffering!). I want to close this part of my note to you with some clever mid-90′s farewell construction, but I can't remember any. I do remember most of the words to "Standing Outside a Broken Telephone Booth (With Change In My Hand)," though, and most of the words to its title.

As a history nerd, an internet geek, a social media lover and Huffington Post blogger, I'm curious about three aspects of AOL's acquisition of The Huffington Post:

  • Huffington has been positioning itself as a general interest blog for some time now. AOL must value that, and I wonder what that might mean for the editorial slant of the new Huffington Post Media group. The ethos of this site is, of course, part of its attraction for many if not most readers, but the addition of many general interest verticals over the past two years really has made HuffPost something other than a political blog. Will the widened audience brought in by AOL mean more general general interest? Will it mean more bloggers? Syndicated content from AOL's other property? All of these things?
  • Will HuffPost content be syndicated across AOL's growing network? If so, how?
  • Will revenue sharing with bloggers or other kinds of payment become feasible? If so, it will almost certainly be tied to traffic. ( if you want to go ahead and clickety click click click click click!)

A few more observations:

After everyone stopped using AOL (that is, after people my age went to college and had cable modems and started really roaming the web, only using AOL for email and AIM, and eventually not even those things), we had this sense that we didn't want our online experience (here comes 2011′s media buzzword) curated by AOL or anyone else. We wanted to get out from under AOL's channels and interface and boldly surf the web. A few years later, Facebook came along and eventually became a new kind of AOL: it is, for many people, a portal to the rest of the internet. It's a starting point as much as AOL's old startup screen, and certainly just as much of a collection of curated media. The key difference, of course, is that this curation is 1) customizable and 2) aggregated by our friends. In a sense, Mark Zuckerberg re-invented the wheel.

Now that AOL is primarily a content company focusing on intelligent, agenda-setting media, it's recapturing a bit of its old time portal chutzpah. No longer simply a desktop service or even just one extremely useful website, AOL is looking to become, once more, a community where people want to be. Fifteen years ago, AOL was the most successful online Third Place because the nascent social web was about instant messaging in a safe, intuitive environment. With a new focus on bringing together the best digital content and discussion, AOL is reapplying for the job of word's biggest internet brand. As a communications tool and packaged online experience, AOL was once the place to be. Can its new focus on content, content, content, make it that again? AOL is betting that it can, and betting big. It's not a bad position. After all, without compelling things to share, what's the fun of social networks? I don't care (that much) about what you had for breakfast. I do care, though, about good stories, cogent insight, and the frenetic cycling of news, and I'm not alone.

Whether the generation raised on AOL: ISP as internet aquarium will bite at AOL:content king remains to be seen, but the acquisition of The Huffington Post and the creation of The Huffington Post Media group alongside an ever-growing constellation of online properties certainly brings the company closer to its long-lost users than it has been for a while. Even as companies like MySpace, the soon-to-be-jettisoned clunker at Fox Digital Media, also see content and curation as the key to internet survival, AOL seems uniquely positioned to make their version of the model work. Stay tuned, America. You'll certainly be online.

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