The AOL List: The Final Days

David Cassel (
Fri, 3 Jan 1997 00:24:50 -0800 (PST)

			T h e   F i n a l   D a y s


"It is becoming a tad wearisome for this company to come out every two or
three months with some new extravaganza of a strategy," an investment
advisor told the Washington Post, "and announce it as if they knew it all
along and say that everything is hunky-dory."  The editor of The Web
magazine summed it up for yesterday's New York Times:  "Another day,
another business model." 

Addressing defecting content providers, the president of AOL's Creative
Development conceded that "There's bound to be a shake-out."  But the
article's author concluded that AOL's new plans could trigger "the first
wave of a potentially suicidal downsizing." 

Even before the defections, visiting departing AOL areas in November
revealed a gloomy picture.  One section in AOL's Wired area -- billed as
"A conference for smart discussion of Web sites, bulletin boards, and IRC
channels" -- received only three topics in 90 days: "proffesional job
search" [sic], "men 16 to 21 that are single," and "REAL ESTATE". ("HOUSE

The folder "Really Tough Web Questions" contained one November post --
"USED CARS."  ("I am looking for a used DODGE AVENGER, Or a 95 to 97 Ford
Mustange gt.") And in two months, the "Digital Revolution" folder received
just one message -- titled "FTP's For Warez."  ("Ok, here's the place to
put those elite sites for other's to visit.") "That's an idea," wrote the
area's editor, the day after announcing Wired's departure. 

"Reality is crashing with possibility," read the folder's description. 

Wandering around the ghost-ship revealed old files submitted by
readers--the most popular of ten being "Buckweet Finds a 2 ft Joint" (415
downloads), followed by a 2-second soundclip of Graham Chapman saying "I
don't like Spam". ("This would be a great file to substitute for 'You've
got mail!' when you log onto AOL," the description noted.)  Up to the
December closing, the section that actually displayed Wired magazine was
still stuck on September's issue. 

As a last gesture, editor Bob Parks put out the archives of discussions--
so I contacted someone from a 1993 thread to share their memories. "I
never read the Wired AOL area, and in fact I don't know why I even keep my
account," they responded.  "I guess I keep AOL because it automatically
calls in every morning at 5am to check for mail. I wish I could get Eudora
to do that."  (They weren't satisfied with that e-mail, either.  "About
all I ever get now is stupid commercial spams; yours is the first
legitimate mail I have received in weeks...")

More interesting is what happened afterwards.  Throughout December, AOL's
keyword "Wired" pointed to the magazine's web site.  Now the same keyword
returns the cryptic message, "We're sorry, you do not have access to that
area."  Ironically, AOL offers a "Go There!" button on Wired's listing in
their Directory of Services--which returns the same message.  It's
probably a maintenance problem.  Mistyping keyword WWF offers a second
near-match -- "www" -- described as "World Wide Web, Coming Soon."  The
keyword leads to AOL's now-available web browser...but the description
hasn't changed since 1995. 

And Keyword: Dogface lasted almost a year.  In September, I interviewed an
AOL spokesperson, and asked her why -- nine months after it was created --
keyword "Dogface" still linked to Steve Case's January letter. ("I bet the
majority of our members don't go into keyword 'dogface' " she responded.)
Three months later, it was mentioned in the December issue of Internet
Underground magazine.  Then on December 16, The AOL List suggested the
link was created because Steve Case fumbled the letter's New Year's
resolution of "more -- and even better -- content". 

Eight hours later, keyword Dogface was deactivated. 

But problems crop up in AOL's new areas, too.  A bulletin board for the
"AOL Insider" invites users to "Share your exuberance or apprehension" --
but attempting to create a folder returns the message, "This board is

And reading posts in the existing folders was no more encouraging. 

* "December 29, 1996, I spent 26 minutes on-line and every site I visited
 never connected." 

* "For the last three days it has taken at least 1.5 to 2 hours to sign on."  

* "I certainly cannot afford to spend between 20 minutes and 3 HOURS
 signing on to check my mail and then GETTING KICKED OFF when I check web

It could be even more chaotic.  This summer recent-hires at AOL worked at
desks in the hallways, according to one former staffer. 

But AOL continues public pronouncements to create an impression of
security--in hopes of getting a cut from online transactions in the
future.  "The appointment of Tatiana Gau as head of our Integrity
Assurance division emphasizes AOL's continuing industry leadership in the
areas of integrity and security," AOL's Robert Pittman said in a press
release.  The next day, the Washington Post reported that between December
12 and December 15, a police report was filed about a laptop computer
stolen from "a business on AOL Way"--and the next day, rolls of cable were
stolen.  "If I am reading this correctly," one Usenet poster said about
the press release, "I'm guessing Ms. Gau's first action as V.P. of
Integrity Assurance, will be to shut down the entire AOL billing

That's no joke.  In July the Florida Times-Union reported that one of
AOL's customer service staffers was arrested and convicted for using
customer credit card numbers.  The paper also reported that he implicated
two other employees.  And there's problems beyond AOL's employees. 
Sources have told me that AOL's 1995 security breach included hackers
distributing customer credit card numbers in AOL's hacker chat rooms. 

In an ironic coincidence, soon after Gau assumes her duties, the AOL
Parking Lot cam at will be

Life goes on at AOL.  Wired moved to projects on the web -- accessible to
AOLers, as well as the rest of the online community.  AOL's welcome screen
now plugs their own homegrown content--tonight, an appearance in Love@AOL
by Drew Barrymore's mom.  Fortune even smiled on the woman with the house
for sale in Costa Mesa.  "The house is in escrow now," she told me in an
e-mail.  "But if you know anyone who is looking to buy I have another one
on the market." 


One of the 18 areas in Love@AOL is "Heckler's Online Romance"--which
offers downloadable pictures of regulars. Until they click on AOL's "More" 
button, users only see 20 file names, so the staff created a file named
***DON'T FORGET TO USE "MORE"***, and put it in the first slot. Its
description read "don't waste your time downloading THIS file.. it's just
a text version of what you've already read... save your time for the REAL

The file had been downloaded 6894 times. 

        David Cassel
        More Information -

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