Looking back on AOL, when online goes offline

on February 11, 2011 | Australia Internet | Comments (3)

This past week, US internet giant AOL gained worldwide exposure for their $315 million buyout of blog conglomerate Huffington Post.

Hearing the news while living in the ‘land down under’, I realised that prior to this event, many Australians wouldn’t have known what AOL was (with the exception of some who caught the 1998 Meg Ryan blockbuster “You’ve Got Mail”).

Growing up in America, AOL was our entrance into the World Wide Web; the company name was synonymous with the internet in the mid to late 1990’s.  “Check AOL”, was practically the earlier but perhaps less catchy comparison to “google it”.

As young teenagers, we dipped our feet into the pool of plugged in personae, visiting AOL chat rooms where we would mask our identities and giggle while we glanced over our shoulders at our suspecting parents.  We reveled in the anonymity; some carried on a short-lasting email correspondence (with a select few early adopters who had ‘Prodigy pen-pals’), but I never knew any that amounted to an offline meeting.

A teenager today would define “offline’ as ‘not signed into Facebook chat’, as opposed to the unheard of life where one is entirely cut off from an online connection.

A modern day ‘offline’ meeting for people of all ages is more often than not followed up with the formation of an online connection – Facebook for social contacts, Linkedin professionally, and maybe Twitter for the ‘I read about you but haven’t yet met you” encounters.

While we see our offline lives shift online every day, the drift of online to offline is also happening more and more frequently.

Including everything from dating, flatmates, and jobs, more and more people are beginning their search online to fulfill the most important aspects of their offline lives.

Leading up to Valentine’s Day, newspapers and magazines have been buzzing with stories of how dating is shifting online, particularly here in Australia.

This article in the Courier Mail refers to the rapid growth of online dating.  “As we grow more accustomed to social media as a way of making and maintaining contact with people, the stigma that used to attend meeting someone online has slowly reduced.”  The article references a recent Nielsen study, which found that 15 per cent of “serious relationships” now begin online.

This week, I found myself at an online inspired offline “meetup” on Monday to join my fellow American expats here in Melbourne to watch the Superbowl. is (or at least claims to be) “the world’s largest network of local groups.”  On their website, they mention “more than 2,000” groups that get together each day, all over the world.

In Melbourne alone, there are currently 449 Meetup groups listed, including expat groups from all over the world in addition to a plethora of popular hiking, reading and food-loving groups.

I can’t help but wonder if members of these groups have an added similarity, not just in their interest in the topic bringing them together, but additionally by the inherent fact that they are also the type of people comfortable meeting in this sort of a setting.  Though connecting with people online is an increasingly accepted form of interaction, it still requires an element of bravery, as one oftentimes would appear alone to meet a group of strangers in an unfamiliar setting.

In my two experiences at a ‘meetup’, here are a few things I have noticed:

1. Everyone wants to share their life story

Meetup offers the anonymity of the internet combined with the comfort of a support group, where people are at ease sharing everything from finance and romance to health and family problems.  At Monday’s get together, before I even had a drink in my hand, the lady seated next to me at the table had already told me all about her failed love-life, sick mother and imminent plans to return to the US.  I myself found myself divulging dirt ordinarily reserved for a second or third encounter.

2. The outsider is the ultimate insider

There seems to always be one person who doesn’t fit the group description, but is an instant crowd favourite. On Monday it was Meg, an Australian who married an American and subsequently became a US citizen. She showed up to the event without her American alibi, but nonetheless instantly won us all over with her story of becoming a US citizen on the 4th of July, where she cried and appeared in the local newspaper. She eagerly asks everyone about their home cities and when it’s best to visit, genuinely nodding and smiling as she soaks it all in.

Similarly, a former colleague of mine used to update us frequently on her Asian-Christian friend’s romantic escapades; she was apparently cleaning up on Jewish dating site JDate.

3. This group would never be together if it hadn’t been for the internet.

Now that I have been to a meetup, I think I see them everywhere.  It’s a table full of people of all ages who probably never would have ordinarily met had it not been for the internet.  It could, however, be confused with an off-site work gathering, perhaps with a bit of added awkwardness.  However, even if they are a group of workmates, many of them would have inadvertently met online, with more and more people finding their jobs using the internet.  They are probably IMing across the table, so now, are they online or offline?

allypress :


* indicates required