3 The Making of an Underclass: AOL

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Subject: Aol is sucks!!!!!what you can do with their cd rom bisk From: xxxxxxxx@xxx.com (xxxxxxx) Date: 1996/04/27 alt.aol.sucks cost to mutch it suck no good send to many disk. Me and my friends took a bisk and lit it on fire and froze it slamed it angaisnt the boor.[13]

At this point, prejudice against AOL and all those who click in her is probably not going to go away, even though it did join the coalition against the Communications Decency Act (see chapter 4). It's sort of appropriate, though, that evidence to support this comes from the WELL, the system whose users arguably believe they run cyberspace in the same unrealistic way some tiny secret conferences I'm in believe they run the systems they're on.

The WELL is sort of the other end of the coolth spectrum from AOL, even down to its austere, text-based interface, which is about as far from AOL's whizzy graphics and cute trivia quizzes as you can get and still be on the end of the same modem. The WELL's cachet comes from the fact that most of the Netizens of any fame as net.activists have at one time or another hung out there: Electronic Frontier Foundation founders, Wired editors, and technology wizards jostle with journalists from the major national media and the organizers of the annual Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference to argue about the most vital issues affecting cyberspace. The result is that the WELL, with 10,000 users, is the most written about online system and probably the most influential, at least in its own estimation.

In late 1995, a user on the WELL decided to test her perception that AOLers were unfairly discriminated against on the Net. She posted a blank message to an unfamiliar newsgroup from an address on a "plain vanilla" ISP. She got mailed offers of help and advice, plus a couple of jokes about her "profound" message. A week later, she posted another blank message to the same newsgroup from an AOL address. She got flames and abuse--from the same people. Reporting on this afterwards on the WELL, she said, "Seeingaol.com in the domain and making assumptions about them, reading their posts with a filter that says they are all jerks, is really not far removed from your basic garden-variety bigotries."

Viewed from a distance, these petty prejudices must seem only amusing. Many AOL users are completely unaware that their address is on the wrong side of the telephone lines and will never find out. It's more serious in terms of the sharing of resources the Net was designed to facilitate if valuable sources of information decide that AOLers are just too stupid to talk to (or they'd choose a better service provider), or if, conversely, vital information is discounted simply because it comes from AOL. Unlike real-world identifying factors such as gender, skin color, and accent, AOLishness can't be hidden--although it can be changed at will. However much we would like to believe that humans are universally good-hearted, kindly creatures, we have a built-in tendency to divide ourselves into "them" and "us" and to create and maintain prejudices against classes of people, presumably to convince ourselves that we are OK folks. This is the dark side of the network of trust that will come up in later chapters, but it is not limited to the Net itself.

There are two other important lessons. First, as more and more of our communications are mediated by computer, AOL's online hazing experience shows how vital it is that the influence of system design on human behavior be examined and understood. Different cultures develop in cyberspace in part because of the technology that supports them. The WELL has a system design that fosters highly structured discourse by allowing no threading within a topic, forcing a would-be participant to read through to the end of the discussion before adding his or her thoughts. Repetition is therefore rare. On Usenet or CIX, with built-in threading, the interface encourages responses to specific points; while this allows discussions to branch into other topics without confusion, repetition abounds because many


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