There's the local tech community.

And then there's AOL.

It's not only that America Online Inc. is bigger than everyone else here, but that it has always been different. When it was founded in Vienna in 1985, Washington technology companies were mostly "Beltway bandits," systems integration companies that made their living from Fortune One, also known as the federal government.

The two--AOL and the rest--didn't mix.

In fact, as it became clear the real action was in Silicon Valley, now-chief executive Steve Case several times tried to get the company's first leader, James V. Kimsey, to move AOL there, according to Kimsey.

"The only reason we're not in California is that this is my hometown and I'm not moving," says Kimsey.

When it outgrew Tysons Corner, AOL moved out to Dulles--until then just the name of an airport--stuck an "AOL Way" street sign in the ground and got huge.

Only about two years ago did AOL begin to come out of its Dulles shell.

You still wouldn't see AOL execs or lower-level employees hanging out at most technology networking events. But in late 1998, Case joined Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III's council on technology. AOL policy chief George Vradenburg signed onto the boards of the Northern Virginia Technology Council and the Potomac KnowledgeWay Project, and asked Collaborative Economics, a Silicon Valley consulting group, to talk to local techies and get a sense of place.

And Case embraced the region in a warm-fuzzy video montage that was played over and over at high-tech dinners. He hosted busloads of senators and representatives who came out to the campus to see Northern Virginia's Internet star.

In these brief moments, AOL has done wonders for Washington's image.

In the meantime, the hottest tech companies in the area, like MicroStrategy Inc. of Vienna and Proxicom Inc. of Reston, started looking and moving more like AOL than BTG Inc., the classic Beltway bandit.

AOL did deals with some locals, became friends with them, and the wall began to (but did not entirely) dissolve. With or without AOL, the region is now one of the fastest growing technology sectors in the world.

A cautionary lesson, perhaps, to uber-networkers.

"They've been focusing on building a business and look where it got them," says Kathy Clark, chief executive of Reston software company Landmark Systems Corp. and chairman of the Technology Council, when asked what she thought of AOL's lack of local schmoozing.

So of course, when AOL announced it would be buying Time Warner Inc., Washington techies were thrilled. Then they asked, "Where will it be based?"

New York, the answer, was not what anyone wanted to hear. Is the tech community losing its new favorite corporate citizen?

How the merger will affect the local economy in tangible terms--in dollars and employment--won't be clear for a while. But the psychological reverberations of moving the headquarters are being felt now.

The word from AOL officials is that Case isn't moving but President Bob Pittman, whom many consider to be the heir apparent after Time Warner's Gerald Levin retires in a few years, is already in New York every week and will spend even more time there.

One scenario sees this area becoming a back-office server farm and the real power moving to New York. Possibly, it was only a cosmetic concession to say the HQ will be in New York, and the center of gravity will remain here. Or maybe something in between.

AOL officials claim that the company will be operated via e-mail and that geography, especially in this virtual world they have helped create, is irrelevant.

Doug Poretz, who runs a Vienna investor relations company, the Poretz Group, had a typical reaction for someone who's seen AOL grow up in the region.

He was ebullient about the deal and then said: "I assumed HQ would be in Dulles."

"It would be a loss--to what could be if AOL stayed here."

Several people wouldn't believe reports that AOL Time Warner would be based in New York, in part because some AOL officials were spreading the word that there would be a co-headquarters. That proclamation was withdrawn by the end of the day on Monday.

"I've heard four different answers" about where the company would be headquartered, said Russ Ramsey, president of Arlington-based Friedman Billings Ramsey Group Inc.

"My first reaction was, 'Who would buy who and where would they be headquartered?' " said Gerald Gordon, director of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, a group that already was not pleased to have lost AOL to Loudoun County the last move around.

But if we look back at the history of AOL in Washington, we see that it has long been an outsider. It sounds simple, but AOL, as always, will be only as connected as it wants to be.

The kinds of ties it has to the community, like Ted Leonsis's ownership of the Capitals and Kimsey's and Case's membership in the exclusive Capital Investors angel investment club, mean the AOL culture is entwined with the community even if the day-to-day operations aren't.

It just may be that New York is as far away as Dulles.

Shannon Henry's e-mail address is henrys@washpost.com.