The AOL List: the Bride-Groom

David Cassel (
Fri, 20 Dec 1996 03:26:54 -0800 (PST)

		    T h e   B r i d e - G r o o m 


A couple met on AOL over a year ago.  A lavish wedding followed at the
Ritz-Carlton in August.  After four months of marriage, the groom had a
surprise for his wife. He was a woman. 

So says the Washington Post.  Throughout their one-year courtship, "his" 
chest had been covered with bandages ("from a car accident")--and they'd
said they had AIDS to avoid intimacy.  The bride is suing, alleging fraud
and misrepresentation. 

But the story's headline relocated the event:  "Woman sues when internet 
husband turns out to be a woman."  As NetGuide wrote in July, "Behind 
every major 'Internet' story in the media lies an AOL chat room".  Though 
most news accounts used only the word "internet" for another scandal last 
week, People magazine named the service:  a Columbia University doctoral 
student was charged with sexually abusing a 20-year-old undergraduate that 
authorities suspect he met "in an America Online chat room."  (The 
magazine added that the Manhattan District Attorney's office subpoenaed 
all records pertaining to his AOL account.)

Sharon Lopatka's North Carolina killer also used an AOL account.  Just
weeks later, a Vermont man used AOL to look for someone to kill his
sister.  In April, chat room buddies arranged a real-life murder in New

And in 1994, a Michigan man called a woman and left a message on her
answering machine, saying "I stalked you for the first time today".  The
woman called the police, who told him not to contact the woman again. 
That same night, he sent e-mail to her AOL account using his AOL account,
and when she reminded him that the police had asked him not to contact
her, he sent her threatening e-mail.  Criminal charges were filed. 

The day his story appeared in the New York Times, his GIF was still
offered in the AOL gallery, along with a user profile containing the
quote, "Sometimes you just gotta go for it". 

And the New York Times scrupulously avoided naming AOL. 

But unlike internet accounts, AOL screen names are disposable--each
account is entitled to an unlimited supply, up to five at a time.  This
creates absolute anonymity--in e-mail, and in chat rooms.  (The Vermont
man gave his name as "Trudy 21", and said he was from North Carolina.)
What's behind this policy?  "Anonymity makes their sex business sell," the
editor of MacWorld told the San Francisco Examiner, "and that's what keeps
things going." 

25% of time spent on AOL is spent in chat--and Rolling Stone estimates
that 80% of that is sexually-oriented.  AOL even fans the flames.  Last
spring they created Keyword: Love--"a new interactive playground that
makes looking for love, falling in love, and taking it offline lots of
fun."  ("Are You a Single Adult Searching the Net for Love?" read one

Unfortunately, AOL's culture -- all-anonymous, all-the-time -- brings out
the worst.  As another example, last spring a 29-year-old veterinarian in
Kansas posed as "Rita" in AOL's chat rooms--then tried to extort money
from the ten men he chatted with using the transcripts. 

Nonetheless, AOL has begun emphasizing chat, coupling the ability to search
the user database by city with "Buddy Lists", which tell when a specified
name is logged on.  Even that created problems.  An equivalent feature has
existed in internet chat clients for year, but unlike the IRC command,
"Buddy Lists" provide notification even when their targets aren't
chatting.  (For instance, checking their e-mail.) Monitored sign-ons
raised concerns in the internet press.  "Strangely, the Buddy List is an
active preference and has to be disabled at keyword: Buddy," Internet
Underground wrote last summer.  One AOL staffer even posted to Usenet that
originally, Mac users couldn't even disable the feature. 

Chat used to earn AOL $3.00 an hour--but now it could be their downfall. 
It costs AOL fifty cents to provide an hour of connection to their
service.  Any user spending more than ten hours a week on the system costs
them money.  Yet the hardcore chatters are out in force.  According to the
AOL Insider, the number of "Instant Messages" increased 42% since 
December 1.  AOLers now spend 608,000 hours a day chatting--which comes 
out to an average of 25,333 chatters each hour.  And clicking on the "People
Connection" icon at 4 am this morning (EST) still took users into Lobby

AOL has become so desparate, they're even urging users to get ISP's. 
"[I]f you don't yet have a new number for your area, pick up your local
newspaper or yellow pages and look for a local Internet Service
Provider..." wrote the AOL Insider.  "If you find an ISP who can provide
you with the dial-up link to the Internet (and oftentimes you can get an
ISP hookup for as low as $10 per month) you can sign onto AOL's Bring Your
Own Access plan for $9.95 unlimited per month." 

Is this a white flag?  Even AOL's latest mass mailing boasts "Unlimited
Internet and AOL." 

"North American Internet has noticed an upsurge in signups since AOL went
unlimited," writes one of the ISP's managers.  "In addition, managers at
some smaller ISPs have told me the same." 

But what's the prognosis?  "If they have six million customers and 180,000
lines, their 33.33/1 ration is more than TWICE what is generally
considered to be borderline acceptable for an ISP."  12/1 is considered an
industry standard.  "If AOLers are going to use the service the way most
people use their ISPs, the company would have to double the number of
lines WITHOUT adding customers to be merely very bad.  As it is, they're a

AOL issued a press release about their expanding capacity--but days later
their CEO conceded to the Wall Street Journal that they'd underestimated
demand.  They also announced they're expanding their customer service
facilities.  But the latest fix involved simply outsourcing customer
service calls to Denver's Teletech USA. Ironically, the firm also services
AT&T, MSN, and WOW.  "They are not a very responsive employer," says a WOW
staffer, "and if they handle AOL like they did WOW you can bet there will
be a ton of misinformation given to subscribers that call for customer
service and get Teletech." 

Time will tell. 


Searching the Washington Post's site for "AOL" brought up two other
unrelated articles.  Their titles?  "Devastating Divorce" and "Getting to
Know You". 

        David Cassel
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