3 The Making of an Underclass: AOL

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In a long article on the service in Rolling Stone, writer Jeff Goodell called sex AOL's "bedrock," estimating that sexually explicit real-time chat was contributing at least $7 million a month to AOL's free-disk fund.[10] Goodell's story of one AOL user--a schoolteacher who discovered sexual freedom online and then incorporated it into her real life--would be enough to horrify many in the religious right even though it combines the best qualities of experimentation with those of safe sex. Her experiences were possible because, besides the closely monitored public chat rooms, members may set up unmonitored private ones at will. These are used for anything from private conversation between real-life friends to the jointly created one-handed online typing fantasy sessions known as cybersex.

In the Net world, this monitoring puts AOL on the wrong side of one of the Net's major continuing flame wars: censorship. A significant portion of Net users hold freedom of speech to be sacred. The answer there, of course, is simple: if you don't like having your speech controlled, don't subscribe to AOL. There are plenty of ISPs out there to choose from that have adopted no-censorship policies. But on the Net, you don't just disagree with somebody and go away quietly. (Well, you may, but if you do, no one will know you did it unless you post a large, public announcement). It's much more satisfying to make fun of them as publicly as possible in alt.aol-sucks, the newsgroup for people who love to hate AOL. Many of the inhabitants are themselves former AOLers, and their relationship to the service is not unlike the attitude of zealously reformed smokers. Others just hate corporate America on principle.

It may have been this kind of thinking that inspired the writing of AOLHell, a free program that adds a slew of functions deemed to be missing from AOL's client software (besides a few facilities that are illegal); a Web site with a test to take to determine if you're ready to leave AOL for the wider Net; a site designed to show up the failings of the AOL Web browser; and a site listing what are claimed to be the words that will get you TOSsed.[11] Those assembled on alt.aol- sucks therefore cheered when, in 1995, several AOLers brought a class action suit against the service challenging some of its billing practices, specifically alleging that various built-in connection delays inflated users' bills. AOL denied the claims but settled the case, which included all AOL customers between July 14, 1991, and March 31, 1996, by giving the affected customers free time according to their service use.[12]The group cheered again at the end of 1996, when AOL declared its overall corporate loss.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking these people need to get a life--to share, if they can't afford one each. You're thinking they have way too much time on their hands. You may even be wondering why Steve Case, the CEO of AOL, doesn't sue the pants off of all of them instead of continuing to be their chief provider of (free) floppy disks. And if it weren't for bisk poetry I might agree with you.

"Bisk" is the alt.aol-sucks subcultural name for one of those free trial disks that show up everywhere from magazine inserts to airline lunches. Anything that ubiquitous has to be a source of jokes, so posters have come up with all sorts of imaginative uses for these: props for wobbly tables, toys for the cat, even bathroom tiles. You figure this out after reading the newsgroup for a few days or by reading the FAQ (or by posting to ask, if your address isn't on AOL or your computer happens to be coated with asbestos). Bisk poetry is doggerel written in the same deliberately semi-literate style that produced the word "bisk," and late at night, when the peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth, it can be hilariously funny. Here is the official, earliest known sample:


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