The AOL List: Deceptions

David Cassel (
Mon, 16 Dec 1996 23:50:55 -0800 (PST)

			   D e c e p t i o n s


The AOL Insider reported that AOL has the most-downloaded photo in
cyberspace--over one million downloads, and over a thousand a day last
week.  ("I counted them on Sunday night," the columnist told me in an
interview.) That would come out to one every 90 seconds--but their figure
is wrong.  "Sunny Delight" is not a photograph, but a library--containing
over 200 photos, which have been downloaded, presumably, an average of
5,000 times apiece. 

Among the photographs: 

	"Mirror, Mirror...She is HOT!" (4410)
	"Open " Sezmyshirt"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" (8385)
	"Our PERSONAL favorite!  VAVOOM! (10396)
	"Two Words--YEE HAA!!" (6049)

Photographs of the 23-year-old female wrestler appear in AOL's "World
Wrestling Federation" area--which, predictably, wears the AOL Members'
Choice logo.  ("Where members go the most often and where they spend the
most time.") The area is accessible even with AOL's Parental Controls set
for "Teen Access" (which probably explains at least some of the

The AOL Insider conceded in an e-mail that it wasn't a single picture with
one million downloads. "Add all the downloads..." they suggested.  "There
are more than 1.1 million downloads recorded here."  And that does come out
to one photograph of Sunny Delight being downloaded every 90 seconds.  The
record was 18,678 downloads, for "Her Skimpiest One Yet".  (One of the
least popular:  "Doin' the Macarena!") "I just wish the worldwide media
would give me the credit for it!" Sunny said in an AOL appearance in

The World Wrestling Federation isn't a far step from AOL's original
marketing campaign ("Ma!  Pa shot up the AOL.") "Trigger-happy rural
imbeciles and other goofy stereotypes do not constitute diversity," wrote
a columnist in Advertising Age.  The latest issue of Boardwatch magazine
has a grimmer observation.  "With more people abandoning online services
every month, it's a wonder that America Online stock keeps rising," 

Actually, AOL's stock lost 11.9% of its value last week--and another 7.6%
Monday.  But it's not clear if even their membership is rising.  When
Steve Case boasted of 250,000 new subscribers in October, he didn't
indicate how many were non-paying members using free-trial accounts.  Last
year the New York Times reported AOL routinely includes free-trial members
in their membership figures--and in October, AOL's magazine ads had just
offered 50 free hours.  

"The model seems to be 'lose money on every subscriber but make it up in
volume'," Marc Andreessen told the Wall Street Journal, tongue-in-cheek. 
But the cynicism runs even deeper.  "Once a member, always a member," says
a former customer service staffer, who believes AOL adds former members to
their subscriber totals. 

He conceded he had no direct knowledge of how the calculations are
performed--but offered first-person accounts of other activities within
customer service. 

* Staffers would create unlimited-access "overhead" accounts for their

* Wayward staffers would roam the chat rooms, bumping people offline with
tools meant for Guides. 

* In the event of a member's death, staffers were instructed not to cancel
accounts without a FAXed death certificate or power-of-attorney. 

The staffer still returns to AOL's pirated software chatrooms--and if the
account is cancelled, he opens a new one.  ("One more member for their
member count.")

His comments raise the prospect that recently-reported disconnections are
deliberate measures by AOL to rotate subscriber access to the service.  In
any case, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's "NetWatch" reported that busy
signals and unexpected disconnections could persist until June.  (One
issue of the AOL Insider began by saying that if you were online to read
it, "the modem gods are on your side.") AOL brags they will have doubled
their capacity by this summer--but their usage has already tripled.  One
user reported downloading a 9 megabyte file from AOL's mirror site using a
28.8 modem, starting after 11 pm.  Seven and a half hours later, only 3.5
MB had downloaded (an average rate of 8 kilobytes per minute.) "You'll no
doubt write back with all kinds of reasons why this might have happened,"
they commented in a letter to technical support.  "Please, just keep it. 
I'm not an idiot." 

"I've tried to be patient with your performance problems," they continued,
"but this incident has suddenly made it clear to me: you're unable to
reliably provide even the most basic of Internet services, the ability to
download a file...  It is clearly now time to find a new ISP." 

Ironically, among Steve Case's resolutions in his January 1 "Community
Update" was providing better connectivity--seven months before a
nationwide 19-hour outage.  Resolution number five was "more--and even
better--content". (December finds rumors they're axing half their content
partners.)  And even resolution number six--lower prices--contained a
glaring misstatment.  Case said AOL would lower rates, but had postponed
changes because "we wanted to make sure the infrastructure was in place to
handle additional demand without deteriorating the quality of service for
all members." 

Strike three. 

Maybe that's why pranksters linked that letter to Keyword: Dogface. 


A source inside AOL customer service tells the story of the subscriber who
phoned complaining AOL's software didn't protect her home.  After all, it
was AOL for windows. 

        David Cassel
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