3 The Making of an Underclass: AOL

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have commented since, is geared toward instant messages, online chat, and real- time interaction, creating a culture where a hasty "Me, too!" is acceptable comment--another culture clash, since Usenet norms consider such messages a waste of bandwidth.

A second problem, in Reid's opinion, was that AOL's software interface confused mailed replies (private) with posted follow-ups (public), encouraging AOLers to post publicly messages which to old-timers seemed more appropriate for mail. Quoting, a staple on Usenet because follow-up messages may arrive before the originals, was not available. Reid also complained that AOL's threading--the facility that shows how a series of messages on the same topic relate to one another--was weak, and that features built into Usenet to allow newer postings to supersede old ones (used with regularly updated messages such as FAQs) were not enabled. There was no search facility (common in Usenet newsreaders), and limits on the number of articles in a single newsgroup the AOL software could show further restricted users' ability to find, and therefore read, FAQs.

The biggest problem for the embattled alt.best.of.internet specifically had to do with AOL's suggested list of newsgroups for its members to try out to get acquainted. It's understandable that the service would want to put alt.best.of.internet at the top--it was a great showcase for Usenet. But the result was that as all those AOLers trooped to the edge of their world and stepped off (I imagine this as one of those long parades of goofy, green-haired aliens dropping through a trapdoor in the game Lemmings), they exhibited normal, human behavior--that is, they hit the first newsgroup they came to and said, Hello, world. And they got flamed.

As one AOLer complained to alt.best.of.internet in May 1994, in response to the presumption that all AOLers were bozos, "Is this any kind of behavior for people in an electronic community? Just because AOL subscribers PAY for their Internet access, not have it provided free through a university, some other users are assuming that they are uneducated morons."

Some of these things have been fixed since 1994. But the deeper problem had to do with AOL's decision to make the "Usenet feature" look as much as possible like the colorful graphical world of the rest of AOL. Consequently, many AOLers may not have understood that they were not on just another part of AOL, and so they couldn't possibly have registered that the standards of behavior were different. In any case, there is a natural tendency to assume that whatever service you first use is the way online should be, and that anything that deviates from that is wrong. Many people started with online services like AOL, CompuServe, or Prodigy partly because these came bundled with new computers, but also because for a novice these services were substantially easier to set up than a direct Internet access account. This balance began to shift in about 1995, when Internet service providers like Netcom and Pipeline began marketing their services nationwide, including software packages that were designed to be easy to set up and use. The advent of the World-Wide Web as the most important unifying interface to the Internet helped a great deal.

Further resentment was created on the Net side by AOL's habit of advertising itself as "the Internet, and a whole lot more," further confusing where the boundary, if any, might lie. AOL also took it upon itself to improve upon certain Usenet conventions: some newsgroups are listed on AOL by descriptions supplied by the service rather than their actual names. For example, alt.aol-sucks is listed as "Flames and complaints about AOL."

It's fair to say that AOL as a company can't have understood how many problems its interface was going to cause for its members and for the Net at large. Although it was slow to change, it did correct most of the mistakes Reid listed over the next two years. However, it made errors again when it launched its Web browser, which irritated Webmasters (the people who maintain Web sites), who were left to field AOLers' complaints when the company's browser didn't support some common Web features correctly or failed to update pages regularly enough on its proxy


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