It wasn't so long ago that virtually every American with a pulse and a mailbox would get CDs from America Online offering free dialup minutes to connect to the wonders of the Web filtered through AOL's "user-friendly" proprietary software. I only used the old AOL once and found it to be one of the most confusing experiences that I had ever had with the Web, but at its height in 2002 more than 26 million AOL subscribers found it to be their connection of choice. Now the Washington Post notes that AOL subscribers are down more than 30 percent from that peak, with queries to customer service reps down 50 percent, leading to 1,300 recent layoffs of customer support staff. Widespread broadband Internet access is noted as one of the key culprits in this decline, but the key factor is that people discovered that the Web really wasn't that hard a place to figure out after all - and filled with a lot of interesting stuff that AOL wasn't offering. Now AOL is backing away from a distribution-centric focus and trying to pump up its original content offerings with trendy weblogs and classic TV shows - none of which seems to be stemming AOL.com's steady decline in site traffic.
As noted in this week's news analysis distribution-oriented content strategies are in decline across the board, with many outlets such as AOL that sought to find a magic chokehold on user access via the Web disappointed as those strategies melted away in the hands of users empowered by global access to infinite content sources. Media companies are starting to catch on to this concept, but for the most part they're still looking for new angles on distribution control that will give them a new edge. There are two types of content providers that will succeed in this emerging environment: those that can produce the most compelling original content and those that can contextualize content from any and all sources most effectively. Portals that do a pretty good job at these two key functions will have a hard time keeping up with those that specialize in one of these two key areas. This doesn't bode well for services such as AOL pushing "pretty good" mass media solutions for people who have ready substitutes. AOL helped a generation become wired, but once they got wired they mostly moved on.