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"10 Free Hours!" Marketing and the World Wide Web in the 1990s

National Museum of American History
A floppy disk advertising AOL: It's free! It's easy! It's fun.Remember these?

Getting free stuff in the mail can be exciting, especially if the stuff that’s free is new and novel. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to have unsolicited stuff pouring into your mailbox. From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, households across the United States received promotional disks in the mail from online service providers. These mailings contained free floppy disks (and later CD-ROMs) for software that provided access to the World Wide Web (WWW), a browser-based application for connecting to the internet made available to ordinary consumers in the early 1990s. Disks in flashy packaging with eye-catching slogans hawked several free hours of web browsing to entice newcomers to the online experience.

The museum’s Computing Collection contains examples of these direct-to-consumer mailings of web browsing software. America Online (AOL) is well represented in our collection, but we also have disks from CompuServe, Prodigy, and Global Network Navigator.

Multiple rectangular cardboard boxes. They're colorful with advertising.A group of mailings from several online service providers in the museum's Computing Collection.

AOL was notorious for aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns, as the company competed with other providers to get more consumers online, browsing the web, and paying to access it. Why did AOL opt for this aggressive and undifferentiated approach to gaining more clientele? The newness of browsing the web, joining chat rooms, and sending and receiving electronic mail were mediated by desktop computers outfitted with bulky monitors. To a consumer unfamiliar with computing technology in the early 1990s, gaining access to a personal computer and experiencing the dial-up process of connecting to the web were far from trivial activities. AOL’s “bundled solutions” offered a one-stop portal on a user-friendly interface at a time when more discriminating consumers could instead purchase separate providers, search portals, news sites, and map providers in an à-la-carte fashion. So how do you get a population unfamiliar with the experience of connecting to and browsing the web to buy into it? AOL’s approach amounted to bombarding consumers with promotional material from several avenues.

In addition to shipping disks to mailboxes across the country, AOL distributed disks as part of promotional sample packages at Blockbuster Video and placed them at stadium seats at NASCAR races, at the Super Bowl, at seats on American Airlines commuter flights, and even in flash-frozen packages for Omaha Steaks!

Jan Brandt was the mastermind behind the AOL marketing strategy. In an interview conducted by Brian McCullough for the Internet History Podcast, Brandt reflected on the marketing tactics she developed throughout the 1990s at AOL. “At that time floppies had value," Brandt said. "They weren’t cheap. If you went into the store, they probably cost 10 or 20 bucks for a 10-pack. So the fact that you got a floppy disk in the mail for free, it felt like it had some value.”

The mass mailing campaigns were effective in reaching households across the United States, but not without complaints from recipients who considered the unsolicited mail unwelcome. Over the mid to late 1990s, criticism of AOL grew in part because of the carpet-bombing method of advertising—as well as connectivity issues from enrolling too many users in a short period of time and the company’s sale of customer e-mail addresses.

A closer look at the packaging of the disks provides a window into AOL’s target markets, imagined users, and promises to its customers. One AOL mailing features a man in a business suit, tearing apart his white buttoned shirt to reveal a blue T-shirt bearing the AOL logo. The slogan at the bottom reads, “Experience the POWER of America Online!” Playing on the superhero subtext, the promotional material suggests that the target consumer was a white man who might work a routine office job by day and harness the power of the World Wide Web by night.

A folder containing a floppy disk. On the cover a man in business attire pulls open his suit to reveal an AOL tee. The text reads "Experience the Power of America Online Pop this FREE software in your computer for 10 free hours online!"The still-unopened cardboard envelope encloses a 3 ½ inch floppy disk containing AOL Version 2.5 for Windows, 1994-1995.

Another example from AOL appeals to the transformative potential of the internet, promising more knowledge, prosperity, and happiness to its users. It also emphasizes the ease with which one can connect, simply by inserting a disk—a novel activity for amateur computer users. “If you want to be more capable, powerful, connected, knowledgeable, productive, prosperous, and happier,” the mailing reads, “Just insert this disk!” It’s that easy. Just point, click, and connect . . . the more hours the better!

A cardboard folder with a floppy disk in it. The text reads "If you want to be more capable powerful connected knowledgeable productive prosperous and happier just insert this disk"A mailing from America Online Version 2.5, 1994–1995.

The novelty of receiving a computer disk for free in the mail was one thing, but being able to put the free disk to use was another. In the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, only about 15% of households in the United States owned a personal computer. According to a study from the U.S. Department of Labor, by 1997, that figure rose to about thirty-five percent. Despite the steep rise in computer ownership over much of that decade, many people did not own their own computers. Folks who didn’t have a computer in the home could choose to access their e-mail and browse the web at a local library or a web café. While many promotional software mailings were never opened, the carpet-bombing technique paid off, as AOL became the largest service provider by 2000.

AOL’s direct-to-consumer mailings were phased out in 2006 as organizational and internet infrastructures evolved, along with evolving architectures of personal computing devices. In the last 30 or so years, the promotional mailing landscape has also changed, as our virtual inboxes get flooded with e-mails for online deals and other offers. Whether you’re excited about or frustrated by getting free stuff in the mail unsolicited, AOL’s legendary campaign maintains a special place in the history of the World Wide Web, as well as in the history of American marketing.

Alana Staiti is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Sciences.

The Computer Oral History Collection in the Archives Center at NMAH contains interviews with several notable figures in computing history, including Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Marc Andreessen, founder of Mosaic.

Posted Date: 
Friday, May 24, 2019 - 04:45
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"A Good Dog Knows What to Do"

Smithsonian Magazine

"Like most people these days who have seen Babe or caught a sheepdog trial segment on TV," writes Timothy Foote in his paean to Border collies and the wonders of sheepherding, "I have a slight grip on a few words in sheepdog-speak." There's "Away to me," which tells the dog to swing counterclockwise to head off the sheep, and "Come bye," which sends the dog into a clockwise curve instead. But it would take some time before Foote became familiar with even half the dozens of calls and whistles that handlers use to direct their Border collies in sheepherding trials.

At the Seclusival trials, on a 200-year-old farm in Shipman, Virginia, Foote spent a weekend with dog handlers and dogs, judges and observers, trying to get a feel for the sport and an understanding of its complexities. "Decisions — flank left, flank right, slow, stop, come on — are commanded and countermanded in fractions of a second. They are made by the handler, but ratified and then executed by the dog in an exquisite complexity, with the handler playing god but the dog still capable of free will."

And Border collies — famous for their intelligence and workaholic tendencies — apparently know what they're doing at least as well as their handlers. It would be nice if they could simply converse with the sheep, as Pig did in the movie Babe. But even without the benefit of language, these dogs seem preternaturally able to "read" a sheep's movements and intentions — far better than your average human, or even your better-than-average handler. As one disheartened handler confessed to Foote after a bad run: "I blew it. He read them right, but I gave him the wrong commands."

"A huge amount of logistical and detail work!" An Interview with Museum Registration Specialist Allison Dixon

National Museum of the American Indian
Museum registrars deal with object acquisitions, loans, exhibitions, deaccessions, storage, packing and shipping, and fine art insurance and risk management. A registration specialist's day is likely to include working on an exhibition team or two, conducting inventories and confirming object information, and reading and writing a lot of email.

"All About Avocados": Los Texmaniacs and Augie Meyers

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Los Texmaniacs and Augie Meyers perform "All About Avocados."

"Armenian Public Radio" Brings Nirvana Attitude to the Folklife Festival

Smithsonian Magazine

California is known as a melting pot of immigrants. People from Western Europe, Asia and Latin America are among the most visible in California's cultural landscape.

But Los Angeles also happens to hold the largest population of Armenians outside of Armenia. One group of Armenian musicians is bringing the traditional sound of that community to Washington, D.C. for Smithsonian's 2016 Folklife Festival, Sounds of California. Armenian Public Radio will play two concerts on the National Mall during the festival.

“We're all first-generation born in the U.S.,” says Mher Vahakn Ajamian, percussionist and guitar player. “All of our parents were born not in the U.S., they were born in the Middle East. Lebanon or Syria.”

Most Armenians in California arrived as they fled various wars during the 20th century. “My grandfather was born in Syria. The reason my grandfather was born in Syria was the Armenian genocide,” when the Ottoman government that later became Turkey systematically exterminated around 1.5 million Armenians starting in 1915.

“My great-grandfather escaped during the genocide and ended up in Syria. My grandfather gets married, moves to Lebanon, has my dad and my aunt. They came to the U.S. due to the invasion of Lebanon in the Lebanese Civil War.”

Armenian-American culture and music has a distinctly multicultural flavor due to the experiences of so many refugees spending years (or even generations) in other countries before settling here.

Traditional Armenian folk music was all around as Ajamian was growing up. As was other music from the family's history. “At weddings, we also listen to Arabic music and Greek music being played. You'll hear the Gypsy Kings and Latin music.” Ajamian's father grew up listening to Pink Floyd and Simon and Garfunkel while in Lebanon.

Armenian Public Radio, a trio consisting of Ajamian along with Ryan Demirjian, guitarist and Saro Koujakian on lead vocals and guitar, exclusively performs traditional Armenian folk songs with a modern American sensibility and on modern acoustic guitars. “The Nirvana Unplugged album, the Alice in Chains Unplugged album. Those are things we listened to over and over again,” says Ajamian. “What we want to be is Armenian music, but sounding like Nirvana playing.”

The easy comparison with Armenian Public Radio is the well-known metal band, System of a Down, led by fellow L.A. County-raised Armenian-American, Serj Tankian. “System of a Down did some great things for our culture, especially as far as getting recognition for the genocide,” says Ajamian. “But I'm not into heavy metal. The other two [band members] listen to them, some albums more than others. I don't know that it has influenced us musically. The Armenian musicians who influenced [SOAD] also influenced us. Definitely in our audience, most people our age here and even a little bit younger, they love System of a Down.”

Armenian folk music is filled with references to the nation's history. During the past century, much of that music evolved with lyrics about what happened starting in 1915. But Armenian Public Radio prefers to maintain a different attitude. “Are we affected by the genocide, yeah, obviously,” says Ajamian. “But we also come from the philosophy that our history goes back thousands of years with folklore and tradition. As much as the genocide history is important, I don't want our entire cultural narrative to become about that.”

“We're a very proud culture.”

Armenian Public Radio performs July 7 and July 8 at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for its "Sound of California" program, running from June 29 to July 4 and July 7 to July, 10 on the National Mall. Other performers include Quetzal, an “East LA Chicana rock group;” Grupo Nuu Yuku, a large ensemble of Oaxacan Mixteco immigrant farmworkers from the Madera area; for a total of 16 world renowned bands and artistic organizations.

"Ay te dejo en San Antonio” by Los Texmaniacs from Texas Towns & Tex-Mex Sounds

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Los Texmaniacs and Augie Meyers perform “All About Avocados,” at the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

"Baby Dinosaur" Appears on Rock

Smithsonian Magazine

"Beer-Drinking Polka" by Max Baca and Flaco Jiménez from Legends & Legacies

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
The music of GRAMMY-winning conjunto artists Max Baca and Flaco Jiménez is steeped in the traditions of their families and region.

"Better Gay than Grumpy"

National Museum of American History

"Better Gay than Grumpy"

"My Unicorn is a Lesbian. Is Yours?"

"I'm Straight. But not Narrow"

The National Museum of American History recently received more than 400 buttons representing a snapshot of LGBT visual and textual culture spanning three decades from the 1970s through the 1990s. I helped Curator Katherine Ott organize the buttons into categories in order to better understand the scope and depth of the collection. In the process of cataloging and documenting the buttons' words and images, I was continually amazed by their diversity. There were protest buttons, buttons from marches and pride parades, buttons for gay-friendly destinations and businesses, and buttons to raise awareness around ballot initiatives, the AIDS crisis, and boycott movements. But to me, the most interesting buttons (and certainly one of the largest categories) centered on humor, puns, and a certain tongue-in-cheek affirmation of what scholars categorize as "queer culture."

Photo of three buttons: "Better gay than grump" "I'm straight. But not narrow." "My unicorn is a lesbian. Is yours?"

The use of humor, double entendre, and secret language is a well-documented aspect of queer culture and LGBT history. Often forced to speak in code or to use phrases with more than one meaning, gays and lesbians living before the era of gay rights movements and calls for civic equality resorted to a language filled with puns and humorous double meanings. Whether this was done as an affirmation within closed social circles or as a defense mechanism against outsiders overhearing queer conversation remains a subject of scholarly debate. What is clear, however, is that queer culture developed myriad uses for words with multiple meanings. Thus a "wolf" came to denote a man who preferred men, and possessed what many would consider the more traditional markers of masculinity, but the "wolf" moniker also suggested a man on the prowl who was perhaps a bit dangerous. "Coming out" borrows terminology used by elite and powerful families to describe their ritual of debutant balls; however, for gay men especially this phrase meant accepting and joining a network of peers within the world of urban, queer society. By taking a phrase regularly splashed across the society page of newspapers to describe a city's wealthiest and most privileged daughters' entrance into high society, and applying it to their own, often difficult entry into a much more hidden society, users of queer language set out to subvert norms and stretch meaning to almost comical extremes.
After 1969's Stonewall riots helped propel the LGBT civil rights movement into the public eye, gays and lesbians inherited this subversive but humorous language. Rather than abandon it, a new generation put it on display as a hallmark of a distinct culture. Thus the affirming and often-humorous buttons can be seen as a continuation of an earlier tradition—one that in many ways perpetuated the subversive tendency to rely on puns and double meanings. In fact, the button format itself is an interesting communication tactic. On the one hand, buttons are inherently public displays, placed on jackets and bags to be seen, read, and understood. On the other hand, they rarely are larger than an inch or two, requiring close contact and intimacy in order to be effective. Like the pun or double entendre, they are simultaneously both fully exposed and carefully hidden.

Four buttons. "How dare you presume I'm heterosexual!" "Come out, come out." "I AM R U." "Closets are for clothes."

Thus a button with the letter combination "IMRU" exists as both coded language and an invitation to connect with others who are LGBT-identified. The button "How Dare You Presume I'm Heterosexual," evokes both campy indignation as well as a serious call to reconsider normative assumptions. "Come Out, Come Out," simultaneously references the sing-song cadence of fairy tales as well as serving as a modern-day statement for proudly self-declared "fairies." The use of language could also work in reverse. "Closets are for Clothes" is an attempt to retire a double meaning deemed demeaning and unhealthy—returning the term "closet" to its original purpose.

As the LGBT-rights movement grew in size and prominence during the 1970s and 1980s, the use of queer humor became more overt, graduating from small buttons to T-shirts, signs, and—later still with the advent of online media—readily shared memes, gifs, and photos. One milestone in this chronology came in 1990 when Skyler Hynes printed up some "Nobody Knows I'm Gay" T-shirts for a booth at the annual Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Festival. In three months, Hynes had sold more than $30,000 worth of shirts, and went on to launch Don't Panic! Designs, which produced iconic T-shirts for LGBT's who came of age (and out) in the 1990s and early 2000s. "2QT2BSTR8" and "I Can't Even Think Straight" evoke the same techniques of wordplay that historians of LGBT history see in earlier eras.

While connected to their historical antecedents, the marketplace's assortment of consumer goods including T-shirts, buttons, coffee mugs, and refrigerator magnets ultimately helped alter the course of LGBT history moving forward. Though tempting to dismiss as campy or kitschy today, objects like these also were part of moving queer language and puns (and thus gays and lesbians themselves) into the mainstream. As the question of marriage equality recently advanced to the Supreme Court's ultimate affirmation, the new venue of online memes continued the tradition of relying on humor.

Meme that says "Everyone gets a a marriage!"

Thus the LGBT buttons currently being evaluated and processed can be seen as important pieces of American history—one born out of a need for secrecy and camouflage that later became a celebrated hallmark of queer culture for everyone to enjoy.

The manager of Museum Advisory Committees in the museum's Office of External Affairs, Daniel Gifford is a scholar of holidays (see his post on Thanksgiving cartoons) and the history of vacationing in America. Have a question for Daniel about the history of holidays, postcards, or other aspects of American culture? Ask in the comments and he may answer it in a future blog post!

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, October 14, 2015 - 08:00


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"Big Train (From Memphis)" The Seldom Scene by Long Time…Seldom Scene

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
The Seldom Scene perform their popular rendition of "Big Train (From Memphis)" at the Ralph Rinzler Memorial concert.

"Bloggie" Nominations Are Now Open

Smithsonian American Art Museum

"Bric à brac", or, Some photoprints illustrating art objects at Gower Lodge, Windsor / described by Lord Ronald Gower

Smithsonian Libraries
Each plate preceded by descriptive text.

Also available online.

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