3 The Making of an Underclass: AOL

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Why are AOLers so clueless?

--Technology correspondent of a major daily newspaper, in conversation, 1995

Here's one of the secrets they don't tell you when you first whip that modem out of its plastic wrapper and fight your way through arcane commands to log on: cyberspace is full of cliques.

One of the more famous examples of this was the 1994 invasion of the newsgroup rec.pets.cats by a disruptive gang from alt.tasteless, a perfect clash between a group to whom nothing is sacred and one to whom cats, in their ineffable fluffiness, are. The way the story got told in Wired, the alt.tasteless crew had a fine old time posting messages about nailing cats to breadboards, cooking them, electrocuting them, and spraying them with acid while the rec.pets.cats regulars writhed in agony. Eventually, the rec.pets.cats people were taught how to use killfiles so they'd never see the invaders' messages, and alt.tasteless gave up after complaints to their system administrators nearly cost them their Net accounts.[1]

Other examples abound. On systems that allow such things, small groups will set up their own closed conferences where they can snigger at other, less with-it users in private. On systems that don't, the same kind of behind-the-scenes, backbiting discussions go on by email or live chat; if you're very clever about such things you might be able to pick up hints of hidden alliances by watching which users regularly back each other up in arguments or fights. Closer to the rec.pets.cats invasion is the kind of trolling and baiting that goes on when a group of, essentially, playground bullies hound some other user for offenses real or imagined--he might be a fundamentalist Christian, say, or have no sense of humor, or just be generally annoying. Or he might simply come from the wrong domain--the Internet word for a system's name.

This last seems to be the situation of 8 million (and counting fast) America Online (AOL) users, many of whom may even believe that AOL is the greatest thing since television. That the system had problems became known at the end of 1996, when AOL switched from hourly to flat-rate pricing and immediately found its system swamped with users who got on and wouldn't get off. In early 1997, several state district attorneys began studying the company's new pricing scheme, and AOL announced a $350 million upgrade over six months to its network to handle the volume. Although the service was still adding users, the effort to acquire them was expensive; as a result of a change in how AOL amortized those users, at the end of 1996 it declared a loss bigger than all the profits it had ever declared put together. Nonetheless, if you have 8 million users you'll have no trouble finding business partners.

AOL was a lot smaller--only a million users--and far from the market leader in March 1994, when it set up its "Usenet feature," which allowed a seemingly endless stream of people to tap nervously on their newsreaders, type out, one after another, "Hey, is this working?" and then hit the SEND button to relay this world-shaking message to all of Usenet.

The problem was where they said it. There is a newsgroup called test, and its purpose in life is to provide a place for people to take their newsreaders once around the dealership parking lot to make sure they understand the controls. Various things, some of them people, monitor the test newsgroup and send replies to people who post messages there.[2] And there's no doubt: it is a thrill the first time you see the message you wrote on your computer come back from Deep Cyberspace with replies attached to it. But that's not where they said it. A lot of them picked alt.best.of.internet. However anarchic Usenet seems, particularly the alt groups, there is often a kind of internal logic to the way newsgroups are named. This particular newsgroup was intended to counteract the generally low signal-to-noise ratio of Usenet postings and serve as a place where people could repost their favorite messages from other newsgroups so everyone


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