AOL to Acquire The Huffington Post

Original logo for America Online, 1991–2006
I've missed you, friend.

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 friend, 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 2o11 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, and I’ll write more about this later.  For now, though, I’m going to refer to you in the third person if you don’t mind (AOL, remember Norm MacDonald? Remember me trying to load Oasis videos? You just kept right on buffering!) and share a few thoughts with my readers.  Thanks, AOL.  You’re the best.  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.

For all of you non-AOL entities reading this post, I’m curious about three aspects of the acquisition:

  • 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.  Everyone says “HuffPo is liberal,” and maybe its highest profile bloggers are.  The general ethos of the site is not a secret, but the addition of many general interest verticals over the past two years really has made HuffPo something other than a political blog.  It hasn’t been the sophisticate’s Daily Kos for some time now.  But I do wonder if there will be an even further widening of voices and/or interests.
  • 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.  huffingtonpost.com/christopher-cocca clickety clickety click!

I’ve written a few blog posts over the years about how 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 world’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.

2 thoughts on “AOL to Acquire The Huffington Post

  1. Well said. I remember for a couple years AOL was so popular that commercials and TV programs told us their AOL Keyword, rather than a website to contact them. I suppose we weren’t capable of remember 6 letters and two periods. (www. .com). A few years later, the same media entities and now music artists told us to find them on their myspace account. Now people have a plethora of online accounts. (Facebook, YouTube, WordPress/Blogger, Twitter, GoodReads, Picassa, Gmail). AOL’s new strategy is interesting and seems to recognize the reality that content provides a stronger longterm model than being the portal. Surely someday we will look back fondly on Facebook as we do AOL, but we’ll still want content.

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