AOL Could've Saved the World

Photo: Associated Press

Can you imagine a world where AOL owned YouTube and Facebook? It sounds delightfully boring. And it almost came to be, according to the former AOL CEO Jon Miller.

In a CNBC interview published on Thursday, Miller revealed that in 2006 the company attempted to buy YouTube and Facebook.

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Miller told CNBC that he spoke to YouTube founders Chad Hurley, Jawed Karim, and Steven Chen twice in 2006. Miller said he also spoke to Mark Zuckerberg in the spring of 2006, which was around when Facebook reportedly rejected Yahoo’s $1 billion offer to buy the social media company.

“We wanted to take some shots,” Miller told CNBC. “We had a line on buying YouTube before anybody else. We had an opportunity to step in with Facebook when Yahoo stumbled.”

Miller also said that two years earlier, in 2004, AOL tried to obtain more than a 20 percent stake of Tencent, the Chinese company behind WeChat, which is now one of the biggest social media platforms in the world.

But of course, none of those conversations were successful. Miller blamed the board of Time Warner. AOL acquired Time Warner in 2000, two years before Miller became CEO. As CNBC puts it, Time Warner had begun to take control over AOL because the internet service’s revenue was diminishing, and Time Warner was not eager to but more internet-focused companies.

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“At all those turns we just didn’t get the support to do that,” Miller told CNBC. “We knew we had to take some shots to change the trajectory—that what we were doing was not sufficient. Necessary, but not sufficient. And it was very difficult when we couldn’t take those shots on what would have been major game-changing ideas.”

Since then YouTube and Facebook have made a lot of mistakes that have altered the course of civilization.

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To name a few of YouTube’s stains on recent history, the site has created a recommendation algorithm that exploits children and pushes people deeper into extremist views and conspiratorial ideas. And it’s given a platform to large adult idiots, child abusers, white supremacists, and dangerous conspiracy theorists.

Facebook, on the other hand, enabled Russian election interference, allowed Cambridge Analytica to improperly obtain personal data on 87 million users, played a major role in the Myanmar genocide, shared user data with other companies without telling people, and exposed the data of up to 50 million users in a security breach.

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All that is just scratching the surface.

Do you know what AOL has done in the last 13 years?

I’ll wait.

Right, nothing you’re even aware of—besides losing AIM and Shingy, along with most of the relevance the America Online empire once had.

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Maybe if AOL had been successful in its attempts to buy (or at least buy into) these tech juggernauts the company would be in a better place now. But we’d like to imagine a universe in which AOL gobbled up all of them and took them down with it.

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About the author

Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo