AOL competitor Bill Gates once complained that he couldn't open a magazine without an AOL floppy disk falling into his lap. And AOL's president quipped that he found the company's disks being used as coasters at parties. The ubiquitous AOL disks were at the leading edge of a computer junk mail trend. AOL alone has sent out nearly 300 million pieces, more disks than the current population of the United States. Most of them are now decomposing in landfills. Yahoo even created a special category just for jokes about AOL disks.
The first waves of promotional floppies started hitting around 1994. The plastic ambassadors arrived everywhere -- bundled with every modem you purchased, wrapped with frozen steaks, served with in-flight meals... and even nestled in gift packages for new mothers. It didn't matter whether you even owned a computer! Anyone who had a mailbox would, on an almost daily basis, find the square packages that welcomed you, "Current Resident," to the expanding online community.
Web pages from that era preserve forever the moment when the first disks arrived, prompting angry, hurt and bitter cries of "Are you gonna send me a computer so I can run this?" and frightening the elderly. ("The directions say 'install and run.' I'm too old to run... should I call the police?")
"Coasters" wasn't just a joke; it became a rallying cry. Columnist Doug Shaker created a "Coasters" email address to solicit suggestions for what to do with the first of many floods of incoming storage media. Should you shingle your house? "I get several every month, sometimes several a week," he wrote in a column in Boardwatch magazine. His best idea was ninja stars -- but soon he discovered there were countless others who were ready with uses for the disks. People suggested using them as projectiles for throwing at large spiders, disposable ashtrays, and a shim under one leg of a pool table.
Others were also brainstorming. One web page steadfastly lists 101 uses: skeet-shooting targets, doggie chew toys, eye patch for one-eyed software pirates. And if you get enough: a life-size replica of Stonehenge.
Internet Underground magazine made a statement -- in fashion! -- when they photographed a Chicago model in a dress made out of floppy disks.
In some corners, disk-collecting blossomed into a full-blown mania. An office assistant in Seattle started collecting them -- couching it as a "plea from a sick little girl." (Ultimately, "Little Kimberley Anne" ended up with 444 pieces of software.) Why collect floppy disks? "I've always wanted my own personal quirk," she writes on her Web page, "but never wanted to do something that was both unusual and time-consuming, like polo." But Kimberly Anne was soon displaced. By May of 1999, a disk collector in Monterey had assembled over 2,155 disks. One local Internet service provider even frosted AOL disks into an attractive holiday wreath.
The situation called for a vigilante. (Or an asshole. Take your pick.) And it turns out there were thousands of them -- hordes of angry geeks who'd gotten one too many of those omnipresent floppies. The first response was pranks. Posing as interested subscribers, the mischief-makers would contact those same online services that were sending the disks for the express purpose of wasting their time. They'd tell the hapless company that there'd been a dreadful mistake; they had a PC, not a Mac. (Or vice versa.) Then they'd ask for replacement floppy disks. And repeat as necessary.
As always: It's more fun if you give them someone else's address.
Usually someone who doesn't own a computer.
As the prime offender in disk pollution, AOL would mail a subscriber free disks to give to their friends -- up to five at a time. An Ohio high school student once requested the five disks -- from each of his AOL screen names, curious to see how many disks they'd send to the exact same address before they wised up.
The answer? Twenty-five of 'em.
The pranksters just smiled every time they thought about the 30 cents the companies wasted sending another disk to a stranger. One critic even encouraged people to write "return to sender" on every floppy disk they received -- rationalizing that 300 million returned floppies would drive the company out of business. Of course, you could always hurl rocks at the company's headquarters until their security goons ejected you. But there are also more creative solutions.
I have a friend in Nevada who replaced the software on every unsolicited floppy disk that he received with pornography. Then he left them with identical disks in computer store carrels.
Anyone trying to sign up for online services in his town ran the risk of a major surprise....
Alas, things change. All fads must come to an end -- and even the champion disk collector in Monterey has moved on to new hobbies -- the Sandra Bullock & Tiffani-Amber Thiessen Web page. ("This is the start of yet another page about babes. However I couldn't make up my mind whether I wanted to do a Sandra Bullock page or a Tiffani-Amber Thiessen page so I'll do both.")
Online services eventually wised up and started distributing their software on non-recordable CDs. The days of the floppy disk were over, and Apple didn't even include a floppy disk drive with their iMacs. Sure, CDs make prettier dresses, and you can always flash their shiny reflective surfaces to blind pilots in passing planes. But it will never be the same. Thus an era passes.
If you want to make someone feel they're on the wrong side of progress, tell them you've got an important document -- then give it to give them on a 5-inch floppy disk.
Embracing the new CD technology fully, AOL even included their installation software as the bonus track on a Celine Dion CD. Anyone who actually purchases a Celine Dion CD deserves what they get. But one asshole sent the company a letter complaining about unwanted advertising -- and was mailed a replacement Celine Dion CD without the offending AOL software.
This seemed like an adequate form of atonement, especially since he'd never bought any Celine Dion CDs. He was just bitching on principle.
As any good asshole should.
Digital Cameras for Assholes
Copyright Infringement for Assholes
Mocking Rick Wallace for Assholes
Chatting for Assholes
Skepticism for Assholes
Voting Fraud for Assholes
Spamming for Assholes
Disposable Identities for Assholes
Anonymity for Assholes
Stalking for Assholes
Religion for Assholes
Death for Assholes
eBay for Assholes
Portals and Personal Ads for Assholes
Newsgroups for Assholes
Lou Cabron is GettingIt's resident asshole.Internet for Assholes runs each Wednesday on GettingIt.