My friend Matthew recently shared an Internet gem and I am getting all sorts of worked up about it: Internet Archive’s The AOL CD-ROM Collection, a catalogue of all those stupid AOL CDs from the nineties that were literally everywhere, a ubiquitous disposable item that is now a techno-relic from a period past. It is a beautiful memorial to proto-Internet consumption, a dusty fruit at the altar of modern life.
The archive was created on July 10, 2017 by archivist Jason Scott as a means to log these free CD-ROMs that once offered trial services for America On-Line. “This approach grew AOL from 200,000 accounts to over 22 million,” Scott explains in the description of the archive. “Millions of CD-ROMs were produced for AOL, at one point representing 50% of all CDs being manufactured worldwide. As a result, millions of CDs landed in the world and went to all sorts of locations, piling up and becoming landfill, filled storage, and art. Multiple thousands of variations were produced during this time.”
“This collection will comprise as many unique versions of AOL CDs as can be found,” he concludes.
It is a beautiful look into our past that will immediately transport some of us to sitting in shitty “computer rooms” in our adolescence, trying to figure out how these CDs worked. (Or, if you were like me, these CDs were always thrown away since my parents didn’t understand them and thought they were a scam: we had CompuServe, pre-AOL acquisition.) The one thing I forgot — or did not realize — is that these CDs had such a life and “artistry” to them, one that could easily sums up a contemporary techno-aesthetic: these free CDs, which likely sell for a nice chunk of change on ebay now, represent us then and now through design.
So which one are you? Here’s a brief scan through the fiftysomething, so you can tag yourself — and know what it means to be “that AOL CD-ROM.”
AOL 7.0 1025 Hours Free for 45 Days (PA702R4)(2001)
Appearance: Rounded fonts above an ambiguous anime figure.
Translation: You started a Change.org campaign against Netflix’s Iron Fist.
AOL CD – Free Trial to America Online – Easiest and Best Ever (PA801R30) (America Online) (2000)
Appearance: Predominately black and gold circle that shares space with a leopard print with the phrase, “Easiest & Best Ever!” atop of it.
Translation: You are Teresa Guidice or, at one point in your life, you thought Snooki was a really, really great person.
Unlimited AOL Free for 50 Days AOL 9.0 Optimized (PA404R38) (2003)
Appearance: Red and white blurred, “zooming” stripes that lean to the right. The words “UNLIMITED AOL FREE!” appear with the caveat “for 50 days” beneath it.
Translation: You are one of the more “progressive” Fox News hosts.
IncaGold AOL Grand Prix Solution – Win95 (Eng)
Appearance: Digital racing cars, seemingly from the video game “Grand Prix Evolution.”
Translation: You have seen every Vin Diesel movie in theatres.
MAD Magazine and AOL CD-ROM (1996)
Appearance: The center of Alfred E. Neuman‘s face.
Translation: You occasionally the word “noob,” quote American Psycho, and still watch Saturday Night Live religiously.
1000 Hours Free for 45 Days All New America Online Version 7.0 (A0302R334)(2001)
Appearance: Pink, purple, and silver CD featuring too much text in way too stylized fonts.
Translation: “Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick is a writer, former television producer, sometimes performer, and general person living in Los Angeles.”
Welcome to America Online Inc (AR022) (America On-Line)
Appearance: The word “Welcome” tilted on and off the CD, in blue.
Translation: You cannot stand the Hulu redesign.
America Online Now! AOL Version 7.0 Come Back Now New! 1025 Hours Free (CR0206R1)(2001)
Appearance: Classic AOL CD-ROM boasting 1025 hours free, for 45 days.
Translation: You’re still texting back your-ex, saying you have changed.
AOL Version 5.0 (AOL) (1999) (CD Green 0100)
Appearance: A hunter green CD with the AOL logo sliced and diced into a more edgy style.
Translation: You run a vegan Instagram account.
AOL 7.0 Now No Credit Card Required Try it Today 1000 Hours Free for 45 Days (A0202R14)(2001)
Appearance: Red and orange central oriented stripes with green and silver text atop.
Translation: You need more fiber in your diet.
Sign Up to AOL Today (America Online)(ADD304CD1)(2001)
Appearance: Silver CD with two brief AOL mentionings, apparently in Arial.
Translation: “No, I wanted an extra shot of chocolate. You’ll have to remake it. Can I speak with your manager? Now I’m going to be late getting the kids from school. Thanks.”
AOL Version 9.0 and 7.0 Windows AOL 5.0 (AOL) (2004)
Appearance: Silver CD with two brief AOL mentionings, apparently in light blue.
Translation: “No, I wanted an extra shot of soy. You’ll have to remake it. Can I speak with your manager? Now I’m going to be late for yoga. Thanks.”
1045 Hours Free for 45 Days All New! AOL 8.0 Now! as Low as 995 a Month (A0403R801)(2002)
Appearance: Strange green tinted off-alien pattern featuring a lot of text and shapes.
Translation: You wish you could work for Vetements.
AOL Titanium Version 5.0 Free Trial (PA500R35)(America Online)(1999)
Appearance: Blue and white CD featuring a very faded AOL logo in the background.
Translation: You have two tickets to see LCD Soundsystem and you’re telling everyone you’re not excited about it (but you are counting down the days).
AOL CD-ROM: Key Clip Art 25,000 (Softkey) (KCT 844 AE CD)
Appearance: Orange and blue CD boasting ClipArt capabilities.
Translation: You’ve sent an email to a company complaining about their brand redesign.
America On Line (Version 7.0)(PA1201R7)(America On Line)(2001)
Appearance: Red alligator print with “1000 HOURS FREE!” over it.
Translation: You are Lil Kim.
AOL 90 Days Risk Free (ONO604R3 1)(America Online, Inc.)(2005)
Appearance: New-er AOL logo featuring blue and yellow triangles.
Translation: You say you’re a nineties kid but you were born after 1996.