Maybe it’s just semantics, but for me “Armstrong” = “Ice Age”.

Tim Armstrong: one icy dude  - photo courtesy of Alley Insider

What does being a “consumer” mean to you?

When you’re using AOL’s software or ISP (or both) or visiting to check your email, does doing those things make you feel like a “consumer”?

How does it feel to be a “consumer”?

Does the word “consumer” sound cold and abstract? By using it I’ve reduced who you are to what you do while you use products and services made by a company that, like any other company, cares about just one thing: how much money they’ll make while your eyeballs are plastered to the screen.

By calling you a “consumer” I replaced you with statistics on what you do and when you do it so I can plot and plan on how keep you coming back for more.

Let’s look at it another way. Let’s say that instead of calling this blog’s visitors “readers” I called them its “consumers”. In return for the precious gift of my reader’s time I insult them by erasing their humanity: “So, what are my visitors consuming? Let’s go check the stats”.

My reason for asking you, my readers, how you feel about being called a faceless herd of “consumers” is this: in case you hadn’t heard, today AOL got its new CEO, Tim Armstrong.

He welcomed himself into AOL’s quirky fold with a rah-rah, “We’re going to make AOL the Magic Kingdom!” pep rally via memo before getting ready to either sink or swim in his new role.

What stood out for me (not much else did) was how often he referred to you – the person who checks your AOL email, who chats on AIM, who visits TMZ and PopEater, and who, most importantly, keeps AOL in business by clicking on ads shown within the content – as “consumers”.

Here’s one example from Armstrong’s note:

Our work together starts today and we’re going to bring back the magic of AOL to our consumers and our partners.

…Billions of consumers and millions of businesses are making the digital migration…

…We’ll make the decisions and the investments that are required to deliver exceptional value to our consumers. Consumers vote with their clicks and the time they spend on our sites, and we need to make world-class products and services that get votes based on a superior consumer experience…

Armstrong repeats the word consumer seven times before he’s done.

He calls my readers “people” just twice, both times near the beginning, then quickly abandons it in favor of the vaguer and to my mind, the more insulting word.

He even manages to work the word “consumer” into one thought three different times. That would be like me giving a speech in which I said:

“If more of AOL’s consumers would visit my blog then maybe AOL’s consumers would see that my blog exists to solely to serve AOL’s consumers….”

Sounds silly, doesn’t it?

Maybe I will stun the AOLers who will read this by not lauding Armstrong for his “strong” focus on “consumers”, but why should I? It’s nothing more than Web 2.0 “paradigm meets the grid” bullshit.

Let’s rewrite his memo. Instead of the above, what if I re-wrote it so that Armstrong said:

…Billions of people and millions of businesses are making the digital migration. We have a tremendous opportunity to help improve the experiences of everyone crossing into the online realm.

We’ll make the decisions and the investments that are required to deliver exceptional value to our customers – the people who visit our online offerings and who use our products every day. Visitors of our online properties vote with their clicks and the time they spend on our sites, so we need to make world-class products and services that get votes based on a superior guest experience. AOL’s partners and advertisers expect no less than our guests [to be pleased? Tim wanders off at this point, then bounces back with:] and we need to hold ourselves to delivering the best solutions the industry has ever seen.

My edits are subtle but it should be noted: Now he’s talking to you. About people. He sounds much more convincing when he sounds like he actually gives a damn – doesn’t he?

When you compare how I think Armstrong should have worded his memo with how he actually worded it, it becomes clear why AOL has met the Ice Age, and why Armstrong’s name is written all over it.

5 thoughts on “Maybe it’s just semantics, but for me “Armstrong” = “Ice Age”.

  1. Googley Goof
    While it is extremely amusing watching AOL make glorious fools of themselves in destroying their own customer base with their asinine improvements by obliterating the one thing that most customers kept them for …a fate well deserved, might I add…Armstrong should just stick with Google. All the sweet talk and promises of returning the “AOL Dream” isn’t going to win him any brownie points with their already vexed customers.


  2. Consumer, Member, User, Dear Reader, etc.
    “Ice Age”? Maybe it’s just semantics, but for me “Armstrong” = “brand name of flooring”.
    Seriously, I wouldn’t be so quick to diss Armstrong based on a choice of wording that admittedly sounds cold in light of previous AOL verbiage choices, particularly “Member”. That said, he’s right: The vast majority of people using AOL services, associated sites, etc., are “consumers”, consuming a product that AOL and their associated sites/advertisers/etc. are putting out there to be consumed. The rewrites you did are perfectly fine, but then, so is “consumer”, and I’m probably not as sensitive to such wording as some people might be.
    But then, I remember getting virtual hand-slaps for daring to use the word “users” instead of “members” during meetings, so maybe I have a skewed perspective on the whole thing.
    Armstrong’s style of using “consumers” over and over and over is a bit grating–has the man never heard of the words “they” or “them”?–but I’ve seen worse, and coming from Google, where the people who use Google really are “consumers” as opposed to “visitors”, “customers”, or any other term, it’s probably a word he’s just used to using.
    But, that’s just my opinion. YMMV.


  3. Re: Googley Goof
    Did Armstrong ever leave Google? If you look through the rest of his memo he says things like, “I’m going to be running a process” on partners and employees soon. His language seems distant, remote, slightly inhuman.
    He reminds of – and this is really not good – Marissa Mayer. The most computer-like personalities seem to rise to the top at the Big G, and while they can get away with that to some extent thanks to their mostly automated business, I think that style is not going to work at AOL where someone needs to be more like Carol Bartz at Yahoo! – much more direct, personable, and on top of things.
    Also, these improvements you speak of…I don’t see any. Anything AOL thinks they’re improving is going right over my head. You don’t improve things without gauging what people really want, then giving that to them. AOL doesn’t do that. They come up with ideas no one wants, take away the ones people were used to and/or really enjoyed, allow for zero feedback, and then they call that “how to run a business”. Whatever.


  4. Re: Consumer, Member, User, Dear Reader, etc.
    Well, I worry that it’s not just a word he’s used to using (see my “he’s running a process” comment above) but an indication of something a bit more troubling – namely, that he’s spent so many years not having to deal with people on any direct level, and spent so many years not having to deal with customers at all – that he doesn’t know how to deal with any of these people now. A distant style of managing is fine if he’s just going to flip AOL to the highest bidder, but if he plans on keeping AOL around in some form and running it effectively he’s going to have to learn what people – his customers, his employees – want and need. In order to do that, he’s got to lose the ice that’s frosting almost everything he says.


  5. Pingback: I had a dream the other day that I updated this thing…(then Verizon bought AOL) | Anti-AOL

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