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Vintage AOL: Adventures in Digital Age archaeology

What do you find when you haven't opened a drawer in almost a decade? Of course there's at least one "Try AOL free!" disc in there.

Caroline McCarthy/CNET

This year for Christmas, I finally decided to give my family something that they've been asking me about for more or less the past five years: I told them that I would clean my room.

No, really. I moved out of my childhood home years ago, but more or less shut the door to my room and didn't change a thing. It's sort of a late '90s-early '00s teenage time capsule. There was stuff in there that had not been touched since the Clinton administration. There were magazines with Justin Timberlake on the cover from an era when nobody expected he'd be cast as a Silicon Valley hotshot in a movie directed by the "Fight Club" guy. There were varsity letters and prom photos and model rockets and Warped Tour '01 memorabilia and pretty much whatever else you'd expect to find in the living space of a kid who came of age in the era of "Can't Hardly Wait" and "Dawson's Creek."

That inventory included one almost perfectly preserved AOL 7.0 installer disc, a CD-ROM that boasts "Faster Than Ever!" and offers 1,025 free hours of access or 45 days, whichever comes first, with no credit card required. (1,025 hours is slightly under 42 days.) On the red-and-gold packaging is the face of a Japanese anime-style character, the edges of the drawing blurred to make the marketing message absolutely clear: This is fast. This is the future.

AOL 7.0 was released on October 16, 2001, right in the depths of post-9/11 turmoil and some of the darkest hours for the dot-com industry. It was also less than a year after America Online's historic $165 billion merger with Time Warner, now regarded as one of the most disastrous business decisions of the past decade. It was also right around the time I turned 17 and flunked my driver's test; in hindsight I clearly should've been honing my skills of coordination by playing more video games.

A press release from October 16 hails version 7.0 as having "a fresh new look that puts local, community-focused features, shopping and resources front and center throughout the service to make AOL an even more relevant and valuable part of members' daily lives." Then-CEO Barry Schuler offered a sound bite, saying "We're building on our strong, engaged relationships with more than 31 million members worldwide to lead the transformation of new categories like music, entertainment, local, and digital photography--with more on the way as broadband and AOL Anywhere create new opportunities like home networking."

I don't exactly remember why I had that CD stashed away, but I'm willing to surmise that I was keeping it around in the case of a dial-up nuclear winter--i.e. if my parents came across a less-than-stellar calculus grade and responded by silencing the Internet connection that sucked away some of the time that I might have been spending on homework otherwise. With that shiny disc, I could somehow figure out a 45-day lifeline.

The 'new' AOL

AOL wants to put those days behind it, and yet, at the same time it doesn't. The thing about AOL in the late '90s and early '00s was that it was as mainstream and ubiquitous as any tech company could get. In a press call last week to announce AOL's long-overdue spinoff from Time Warner, current CEO Tim Armstrong said that "this company is one of the companies that really put the Internet in vogue for consumers."

"The '90s were about access, and AOL played a major role in access," Armstrong continued. "This decade has really been about platforms: Google, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera, and we believe that the next decade will really be about content."

So the company has courted Madison Avenue aggressively, with marketers and agency types flooding the floor at AOL's glitzy spinoff party at the New York Stock Exchange last week. It's launched Seed.com, a bold and controversial clearinghouse for quick, efficient media content based on trends and demand. A medium-sized 2005 acquisition, Weblogs Inc., has proven more important to the company's navigational course than the jaw-dropping $850 million it spent on social network Bebo last year. The dial-up access business is still there, but slowly dying.

A lot's changed, and still a lot hasn't. The focus at AOL now might be on blog content, not the beeps and buzzes and "You've Got Mail!" messages. But at its core, even in the Tim Armstrong age, AOL still wants to be something that the average consumer--which, I suppose, includes small-town teenage girls who spend more time instant-messaging than learning how to parallel park--absolutely can't live without.

Rebuilding AOL is a challenge that some have dismissed as a total pipe dream for Armstrong & Co. But some cultural phenomena have indeed proven capable of being relevant at both the beginning and end of the '00s: I mean, look at Justin Timberlake. That guy looked ridiculous when he was all over teen magazines 10 years ago.

(As for the AOL disc, thanks very much to those of you who offered suggestions via Twitter for what I should do with it. Seems like a lot of you use them as coasters!)