3 The Making of an Underclass: AOL

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could see the gems without having to do their own strip mining. So the rule was and still is: no comments, no original messages, repostings only. Very strict. And this setup worked remarkably well as long as the number of new users popping up with comments stayed at a manageable level. Unfortunately, the arrival of AOL changed all that.

Within a couple of months alt.best.of.internet had turned into a battleground. AOLers would post hello messages, old-timers would follow up with vituperative diatribes about reading the FAQ without telling them how to get it, and other old- timers would pile in and take up more bandwidth and create worse useless noise than the AOLers' messages did in the first place. Tempers got short. Repostings got lost.

If that had been AOLers' only sin, they might eventually have been forgiven, especially by the many who do not read alt.best.of.internet, "due to the collective memory of the Net being about one week, maximum," as David DeLaney observes in the "Net.Legends FAQ."[3] But several factors ensured that AOLers' transgressions would not be forgotten. First was the sheer volume of new users; if only a small percentage of a million people causes trouble, that's still a lot of people. Second was the fact that, unlike each year's arriving freshman class, all AOLers came from a single domain: aol.com. Every message, every crude sexual come-on, every misplaced question reinforced the initial impression of that particular domain as populated with willfully stupid people--or, as the Net would put it, clueless. In the collaborative effort of one newsgroup, AOLers "couldn't get a clue if they stood in a clue field in clue mating season, dressed as a clue, and drenched with clue pheromones."

The final factor was one of instinctive resentment of any hint of commercializing the Internet. Where traditionally, Internet users shared their resources for the public good, the perception was that AOL neither knew nor cared about net.traditions but was only interested in sticking a meter on a free resource and billing its users extortionately.

"AOL's philosophy borders on net-abuse," wrote David Cassel, the maintainer of the alt.aol-sucks FAQ, [4] saying that the earliest version of AOL's Usenet newsreader was buggy and wasted resources by reposting articles multiple, unnecessary times, and complaining that AOL had failed to consider adequately the impact of its users' demands on FTP sites[5] and made no such facilities available on its own servers for the rest of the Net. "This gets into an ideological war," noted Cassel. "Technology now allows people to freely exchange information at an amazing rate. AOL attaches a meter to that process. In addition, aggressively pursuing new users, AOL exploits the lack of awareness of existing technological capabilities, and establishes a model that follows the traditional role of pre-packaged entertainment designed for a mass audience."

At the time, a thoughtful and intelligent user named Edward Reid did some research and came to an interesting conclusion: AOLers weren't (necessarily) stupid; they were software-disadvantaged. In a carefully written and thoughtful article (reposted to alt.best.of.internet by Ron Newman, an old-time user with widely respected technical knowledge), Reid analyzed the interface AOL had given its users and concluded that it was the source of much of their disruptive behavior.

One problem was that the software AOLers used to access Usenet offered no offline reading or editing facilities. Therefore, AOLers, who were then paying $3.50 an hour for their access, were under pressure to read and write as quickly as possible, encouraging them to skimp on what Reid called "think time." Reid noted that many AOLers were complaining about this in the system's internal newsgroups. Reid couldn't figure out why AOL, which even then provided offline facilities for email, didn't provide similar facilities for Usenet.[6] (The answer may be that AOL doesn't supply offline facilities for its own rather rudimentary message boards.) AOL, others


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