AOL Pioneer Dishes About Dial-Up, Chat Rooms, And Verizon Deal

(Photos: Getty, Illustration: Vocativ)
May 15, 2015 at 6:17 AM ET

Joe Schober spent more than half his life working at AOL. As chief architect, he helped usher in the digital era, playing a major role in the creation of AOL’s iconic chat rooms, screen names and instant messenger services. Over 22 years at the company, Schober, 41, also experienced firsthand the extraordinary rise, fall and reincarnation of the media giant. Following AOL’s $4.4 billion sale to Verizon this week, Vocativ reached out to Schober, who left AOL last year, to rap about the company.

What do you hope happens next for AOL?

What I would like to see, personally, is for AOL to thrive and have a better vision of where they’re truly going now. One of the brilliant things about Steve Case [the company’s co-founder and onetime CEO] was that he had a mission I always loved because it was so crystal clear. It was something like: AOL will build a global medium that is as central to people’s lives as televisions or telephones, but more valuable. To me, that was such a vivid purpose for the company. You just intuitively understood it. And it excited people.

Did that change at some point during your career?

Honestly, as time passed, I didn’t find the mission of AOL to be as clear. The mission statement changed around. From just a subjective view, it lacked that energizing direction. I’d love to see that brought back one day, though it’s hard for me to say what that mission should be at this point. The reality is that AOL is now just a unit of a telecom monolith, so it will probably be harder to get that crystal clear focus. In that sense, I guess I fear for the longterm state of AOL as an entity. But I guess we’ll see what happens.

Are you as surprised as we are that more than 2 million American households still pay for AOL’s dial-up Internet?

There’s any number of explanations for why those people are still around. Some people are just set in their ways. Some folks still don’t have access to broadband. And, to be honest, a certain number of subscribers are people who don’t even bother to look at their credit card statements. I think some people want to keep their AOL mail addresses and they don’t realize you can do that for free these days. There are still very high profit margins in dial-up. It’s just cruising along.

Do you ever miss chat rooms? How well do they stack up against contemporary social networks?

I think that, as a matter of culture or flavor, chat rooms felt a little friendlier or more like a community. It was something AOL aggressively fostered back in the day. At the time, you were restricted to 23 people in a room, so it was a lot like being at a dinner party. Or a little town. In a lot of ways, Facebook and Twitter sort of lose that feel. I don’t know what, if anything, can be done to get that back. Having said that, as long as people still have a way of interacting with each other, I suppose the technology is kind of irrelevant.

A confession: My first AOL Instant Messenger screen name, which I got in high school, was Bootyholic247. Creepy? Wildly inappropriate?

Your screen name was well within the normal bounds, I would say.

What was your screen name?

The ever-inspired JSchober. First initial, last name. I guess I was boring person back then. Though I also had the screen name Joey. A lot of people thought I was Joey Fatone [from NSYNC]. I would get inundated with AIM instant message. Just hundreds of them popping by people telling me how much they loved me and my music. Technically, I still have it. But I never use for anything at all. I’m not really into boy bands. 

I noticed that you still have an AOL email address. What’s up with that?

I’ve had an AOL account since 1988. I kind of laugh when I think about it. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who says I’m uncool for having one is probably the same kind of person who makes fun of someone for driving a Ford Festiva. That attitude isn’t interesting. I don’t put any kind of value in that kind of person.

So do you drive a Ford Festiva?

No, I don’t.