The AOL List: Betrayals

David Cassel (
Wed, 11 Dec 1996 16:53:37 -0800 (PST)

			  B e t r a y a l s


Wednesday night AOL went offline for three hours.  Deliberately.  This was
one of their scheduled maintenance shutdowns between 4 and 7 am EST. 

But the AOL Insider reports that--once on the system--users spend 4.25
million hours chatting every week (still about 20% of total usage).  Those
"Week One" numbers show a huge increase--Rolling Stone reported that for
the entire month of May, AOL users chatted just 6,950,171 hours.  Now the
AOL Insider calculates AOL's users spend 3 million hours online EACH
DAY--which would come out to 90 million hours for all of December.  The
figure for May?  Just 26,377,881 hours. 

A comparison chart: 

		   Hours All Users Spent on AOL (in millions)
		    Hours in Chat      Total Hours       

	 May		 6.9   	 	   26.3            

        December	 17   	 	   90		 

        Increase        146%		  242%


                May figures from Rolling Stone, 10/3/96 
                December extrapolation from AOL Insider 

It's affecting every area of the service.  Heckler's Online reported an
increase of 150%, traffic at Jewish Community Online doubled, and USA
Today reports that even time on an obscure site called "The Knot" went up
30%. (They also noted users are staying online 20% longer.) The traffic is
so heavy, a user told me Friday they were unable to access a single web
site from AOL for over two hours. 

This enfuriates GNN members--who were involuntarily "transitioned" to AOL
as part of October's restructuring.  "We understand that you have
expectations about what your Internet experience should be," read a letter
to all members last month, "and we stand behind meeting those
expectations... You won't get a better Internet experience anywhere than
with AOL."  Tuesday's New York Times reports that in fact, they're facing
busy signals, problems downloading and installing the AOL software--and
unhelpful support personnel.  An AOL spokesperson said their calls were
being mis-routed to staffers trained only for pricing questions, claiming
there were only "a few thousand" complaints.  (In July GNN had 120,000
members--so a few thousand complaints would constitute close to 2% of the
entire GNN population.)

"Is it just me, or is everything about AOL inferior to what we had with
GNN?" asked one poster to alt.gnn.exodus.  "If you haven't switched from
GNN to AOL yet," another suggested, "consider another carrier." 

Even before the flat-rate pricing, an Information Services Analyst wrote
Communications Week, suggesting that AOL "spend the $300 million allocated
for its new ad campaign to improve service for its current customers
rather than trying to attract new ones."  Noting problems with logging on
and staying connected, they concluded "I am not looking forward to more
competition for the same resources." 

Instead AOL plowed that money, and substantial "paper profits", into
expanding--a policy the magazine says "transformed the company into a
profitless cash-flow engine that must grow or die."  The president of
Wireless Computing Associates wrote that Steve Case's cable model is "the
kiss of death" (a complaint echoed in a Tuesday article on MSNBC.) "If
this strategy isn't corrected in the next 18 months, this leap of faith
will look more like a plunge off the precipice."  Cable operators enjoy a
monopoly, and subscribers have few options--whereas a significant portion
of AOL's populace "leave for a direct Internet connection as soon as they
become educated."  Unlike cable channels, many AOL's subscribers have only
a vague idea of what they're signing up for. 

But AOL's marketing fosters misunderstanding. "What dirty chat rooms?" an
AOL demonstrator told me coyly when AOL's 18-wheel promotional truck
stopped at a nearby shopping mall.  Investigation showed that AOL had
disabled chat room capability on all 13 computers demo-ing their software. 

"Go into the member rooms," an onlooker immediately prompted... 

For all their talk of original content, AOL has just 5100 Keywords.  And
three major players defected last month.  (Explosive coverage at Even the
New York Times is skeptical of their business plan:  "AOL executives say
they plan to eschew profits until the service can sustain 10 million
customers, and then will gamble that revenue will come from advertising
and transaction fees." Users signing on this morning found a mandatory
pop-up ad for the AOL Visa card.  But even with a cut from Visa's
transaction fees, and others, can AOL still service 10 million users and
make a profit? 

Time will tell.


Chat room, bulletin board, and profile censorship have given AOL a
reputation for strict control of content.  

It cuts both ways. According to Peacefire each and every home page created
by a GNN member was blocked in advance by the Cybersitter software. 

     David Cassel
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