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Remember These Free AOL CDs? They’re Collectibles Now

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smithsonian.com

The word "collectible" has different meanings: an object rare enough to be prized, or some thing worthy of accumulating. But now, writes Arielle Pardes for Vice, a group of collectors has pushed the term to a new extreme by hoarding one of the most ubiquitous (and mocked) items of the late 20th century — the AOL CD-ROM.

It's been so long since AOL blanketed every surface of the known world with trial discs, it's easy to forget them — or underestimate their ubiquity. During its quest for dial-up Internet domination, AOL's former chief marketing officer Jan Brandt estimates that the company spent more than $300 million handing out all those free trials. The marketing effort allegedly cornered half of the world's CD market. That's a lot of free hours.

And a lot of leftover CDs, too. The most prolific collector owns more than 4,000 unique AOL discs, Pardes reports. From branded discs to foreign ones, there's enough variety to tempt a lot of collectors. In 2002, the company even auctioned off collectible discs for upwards of $400.

Niche connoisseurs of the World Wide Web aren't the only ones who treasure these tech artifacts. The Internet Archive wants them, and the National Museum of American History even has an AOL floppy disk on exhibit. Still, every collector's devotion pales in comparison to the ultimate use of all those free CDs: this glowing, 150-pound throne built from 4,000 discs.

You know what they say, though: one person's desperate direct-mail trash is another person's treasure.

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