3 The Making of an Underclass: AOL

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

server. [7](Ironically, the company that benefited most from AOL's Usenet debut was probably its nearest competitor, CompuServe, then nearly double AOL's size, which observed the situation and determined to construct a gateway that would cause less trouble. CompuServe has never suffered from anything like the same image problem on the Net, although it, too, is resented as too expensive. However, in early 1997 WebTV users were joining AOLers in the "clueless" ranks.)

Whatever the Net thinks about it, within its own modem ports AOL has been a roaring success. Between 1994 and 1997 AOL's claimed user base grew from 1 million to 8 million; the company launched a public stock offering; and it became the number one domestic U.S. service, estimating its daily contribution to Usenet at 300,000 postings. Plastering the world with free disks and free trial accounts helped create for AOL a throwaway accounts culture whose flame-and-run tactics were in general more destructive to the Net in encouraging spamming and other types of abuse than the far more controversial anonymous remailers that allow users to interact on the Net over a long period of time without revealing their real-world identity. But the strategy netted AOL a ton of subscribers (and supplied a generation of computer users with free backup disks).

It only added to the Net's contempt that there were several significant Internet services that AOL didn't offer, notably outbound Telnet, the function that allows you to log on to remote computers as if you were directly connected to them. The buzz may be all about the Web, but Telnet is a vital service and one the other major providers were supplying by 1995. More than that, it seemed that no matter what you did on AOL you ended up twiddling your thumbs while AOL downloaded "artwork"--all those colored graphics that give the service a large part of its character. And on top of that, the ability that old Netheads take for granted to multitask--like being able to download a file in the background while browsing the Web in one bit of foreground and hanging out on multiple channels on Internet Relay Chat in another--just couldn't be had. AOL, like all dial-up services of the era before the widespread use of Internet standards, only let you do one thing at a time. AOL did have the capability of running Internet sessions like those offered by flat-rate ISPs for those with the knowledge to seek out their own software, but it was an expensive--and, people complained, slow--way to get your Internet service.

AOL's chat rooms[8] were another sore point. Chat is one of those functions that most systems offer to let groups of users type messages to each other in real time, emulating a live meeting or conference. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is far more flexible than AOL's setup, which limits users to one chat room at a time, with a maximum of twenty-three users. That relatively small objection was easily trumped by the activities of AOL's Guides, volunteers detailed to keep the service "clean."

AOL Guides act as monitors. If someone starts abusing other people in a public chat room, using sexually explicit words, or trying to trade illegally copied commercial software, any of the users can complain to a Guide, who will join the conversation and monitor the situation, warning the miscreant if it seems appropriate. If unacceptable behavior persists, the Guide can eject the person from the chat room and even the service--alt.aol-sucks posters call this getting "TOSsed," a word derived from "Terms of Service." AOL has also faced complaints about censorship from other users, such as the Creative Coalition, a group formed to protest the disappearance of members' poetry from the AOL message boards.[9]

If you think of AOL as a privately owned commercial service aimed at the family market, these policies make some sense even if they fail. And they have failed on a few occasions: some of the most frightening stories about the Internet and pornography or contacts between children and pedophiles did not happen on the Internet but within the supposedly safe confines of AOL. Their being reported as Internet stories is yet another source of resentment on the Net at large.


Copyright © 1997-99 NYU Press. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without written permission of New York University Press is prohibited.

Be sure to visit the NYU Press Bookstore

[Design by NiceMedia]