AOL, Angelfire, floppy disk. Vice’s new article on the “intense, competitive world of AOL disc collecting” is full of anachronistic references that make a Baby-G watch seem modern by comparison. Remember AOL discs? They came in a variety of colors, could be shrink-wrapped or encased in plastic, and promised users anywhere between 200 and 500 free online hours. And get this—AOL’s fire-hose approach to marketing actually worked. According to Jan Brant, AOL’s former chief marketing officer, the company was “logging in new subscribers at the rate of one every six seconds.”
As Vice reports, some of the collectors fell into the hobby almost by accident. Brian Larkin started collecting the discs years earlier with the intention of recycling them only to then forget about them and rediscover them later upon moving. That’s when he noticed they were beautiful and joined “a small, but tenacious community of AOL disc collectors.” Other members like Lydia Sloan Cline and Bustam Halim have collections that boast more than 3,000 discs. Halim started collecting them in 1999 “because they were free.” Sloan Cline keeps her collection in a neat array of racks in her basement. Despite their large collections, both Sloan Cline and Halim say that when it comes to collecting AOL discs, it’s about diversity not quantity. “There were hundreds of designs, and about 20 percent of them were rare ones,” Sloan Cline told Vice. “Those are what we fought over.”
Which is to say, rarity has nothing to do with it. Rather, it’s the discs’ ubiquity that makes them relevant to history. As Brandt pointed out on Quora, “At one point, 50% of the CDs produced worldwide had an AOL logo on it.” That’s also why the discs will probably never accrue any real value. But that’s hardly the point: Collecting is about nostalgia, and for these collectors, what’s worth treasuring is the overwhelming sense of helpless agitation that is aroused when one is reminded of AOL discs.