Sunday, January 16, 2011

Never Too Proud to Recycle Content Nearly a Decade Old

Late last month techcrunch revealed that mailing all those AOL CDs during the 1990s cost quite a bit of money. Which reminded me of an article I wrote for Shift back in December 2001 about Lydia Cline, a woman who collects AOL disks. I can still clearly recall that I tried my best to imitate the witty sophistication of Adam Sternbergh with this article. I'll let readers judge how successful I was. 

Shift | December 2001 | Ryan Bigge

Until this very moment, you were unaware that Lydia Cline of Overland Park, Kansas, packrats Lucite purses, vintage TWA posters, Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls and cartoon character glassware. But this list evaporates when you learn Cline has willingly acquired over 500 playfully-decorated AOL disks, the ur-junk mail of the nineties. While most deride and scorn the software delivery devices that lurk inside cereal boxes, flyers and magazines, Cline has lovingly gathered all manner of AOL product: CDs, mini-CDs, even 3 1/2 disks. She also has Q-Link diskettes (an AOL forerunner) for the Commodore 64 and discs printed in funny languages from strange, faraway countries like Brazil, Germany and Hong Kong.

She has a lot of them.

It wasn't always like this. "I used to throw 'em away at first just like everyone else," admits Cline.

It was a slow, tranquil evolution from skeptic to completist. A few years ago, Cline, an AOL user and small fry shareholder since 1994, started putting disks aside in a basket in case she needed to reinstall the software. Then, one fateful day, she realized each of her fifteen discs featured a different, snazzy image. Her curiousity piqued, she began to seek out other designs in the same way as a pog or Coke bottle enthusist might. Two years later, her collection includes such oddities as a Spiderman disk, a Bugs Bunny disk, even an X-Files disk. And 497 others, examples of which are neatly displayed at

Cline is an otherwise sane, forty-one-year-old mother of two, an architect and professor at Johnson County Community College who just happens to be able to wax poetic about old AOL discs the way other people discuss wine vintages. "The pre-1992 version 1.0 are really neat because they're on 5 1/4 floppies, they have packaging which includes a letter from Steve Case, a fold-out poster, and a booklet on getting started."

Cline is the sort of person who refers to 5 1/4 floppies as "antiques."

Nevertheless, Cline is a pragmatic collector. Her living room doesn't boast an AOL shrine. Instead, "they're just in a bunch of Rubbermaid tubs in my basement." She adds to her stash by trading disks with a small circle of eight similarly afflicted collectors who all met through eBay. (She even has a rival, KrazyErik). Thrift stores, garage sales, newspaper ads, friends, students, and email lists are also an excellent source of digital booty.

She'll even go as far as to politely pester webmasters in foreign countries for disks in hopes they have a stash of AOL product they have no use for. When all else fails, she capitulates to eBay.

Thus far, Cline has spent between $500 and $700 on her hobby. "It sounds really sad to hear myself say that," Cline says, laughing, before rationalizing her addiction. "I know other collectors on eBay have spent far more than me because they always outbid me on the really desirable disks."

Like many visionaries, Cline is content to wait for the rest of the world to catch up. She views AOL discs as another Pez or metal lunchbox -- a pop-culture collectable that will eventually appreciate in value. Despite the millions of free discs distributed, most end up in the trash can or as drink coasters, meaning there are fewer mint-condition discs than you might think. As Cline sagely observes, "Ten or 15 years from now, people who have websites on mangling the disks, are gonna slap their foreheads and say, 'I wish I'd saved a few.'"