The AOL List: Game Over

David Cassel (
Sun, 22 Jun 1997 05:35:37 -0700 (PDT)

			   G a m e   O v e r


Friday the 13th came early. 

"We had a little bit of a hangover effect," David Gang told the San
Francisco Chronicle, explaining that a temporary brown-out of AOL's
network Thursday the 12th interrupted e-mail delivery for over 150,000
subscribers.  ( )
"But the system is bigger, better and more reliable than ever." 

"AOL Has Second E-mail Outage" C|Net announced Wednesday.  
(,4,11669,00.html )  After contacting the
AOL List, they re-visited the AOL Senior Vice President.  "Gang said
e-mail generally is good and defended the company," C|Net wrote. 

"AOL E-mail Outage Hits 500,000" C|Net wrote two days later. 
(,4,11772,00.html ) AOL's spokeswoman
attributed it to a 6 a.m. mail server malfunction Friday morning.  
But test messages sent by the AOL List Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and
Saturday all took over twelve hours to arrive.
By Wednesday, David Gang had backed off his claims of a speedy recovery. 
"It's going to take some time for the overall situation to catch up," he
told C|Net.  That night, Reuters reported AOL experienced a 45 minute
brown-out.  ( ) 

But AOL was silent when it came to informing members.  Neither senders nor
recipients of delayed e-mail messages received any notification of the
long delays.  "UPDATE ON ACCESS," AOL's welcome screen announced
Wednesday -- but it led users to an article about AOL stock portfolios. 
Next to it:  an opportunity to "Meet Meg, the AOL Insider."  "My mission?"
Meg boasted.  "To keep you in the know."  But not a word about the e-mail

Real insiders blame the machines storing AOL's e-mail.  "The basic point
of the first layer of AOL e-mail servers is to take mail from internet
providers and feed it into their real e-mail gateways," one ISP staffer
commented.  "It is an effort to make it look like there is no delay, when
in fact the delay simply takes place on a different machine."  The tactic
may have backfired.  "AOL blocks shooting mail" a poster complained
Tuesday in the rec.guns newsgroup, concluding that AOL censors were
blocking traffic on a mailing list about rifle target shooting. 
"Considering all the perversion and smut that circulates on AOL, I find
this rather startling..." they wrote, announcing that they were contacting
the National Rifle Association... 

AOL's ongoing 12-hour delivery times recall the 100-hour delays in 1995. 
( )  "I know this is a
significant inconvenience to many of you and I want to assure you that we
are focused on fixing the problem" Steve Case announced in his Community
Update -- after the problems had persisted for two weeks. 
( )  

Two years later, blame is shifted.  In his June 12 interview with the San
Francisco Chronicle, David Gang argued that some of the mail delivery
problems were "not AOL's fault."  But skeptical subscribers don't believe
him.  "AOL ate my mail" one Usenet poster complained Wednesday.  After
Friday's problems C|Net reported that an AOL spokesperson "expected the
remainder of members to be with e-mail by tomorrow morning" -- though in
fact, the 12-hour delays remained unabated Saturday.  It's a familiar
pattern.  Days before a 19-hour nationwide outage, AOL had told the San
Francisco Chronicle that AOL was immune to nationwide outages.  
( ) 

The problems may be even worse.  "It took me three to four days to get
e-mail from my son in Wyoming," a California subscriber told the San
Francisco Chronicle.  Another user told the AOL List they'd seen 12-hour
delays in mid-May -- and as recently as Tuesday.  AOL may be cracking
under the strain, according to one domain-operator who contacted AOL's
postmasters about mail-delivery problems.  "At first they couldn't figure
it out," he told the AOL List, "and now, they just don't answer my

But AOL has problems in other areas.  Thursday, AOL's "Kids Kicks" area
was displaying the message "This soccer ball is so gay."  Hackers had
struck again... 

Within hours of a Friday the 13th attack reported on the AOL List 
( ) AOL's Vice President of
Integrity Assurance issued a desperate in-house memo to content partners
touting AOL's "state-of-the-art firewall and security technology, along
with a sophisticated monitoring system to prevent vandalism to the
network."  Within hours, hackers had accessed the memo and forwarded it to
the AOL List.  Apparently alluding to earlier AOL List posts, Gau added
that "You may have seen some recent reports relating to cyber-vandalism on
the AOL service."  Modifying her stance to say that AOL has a higher level
of NETWORK security--but not overall security--Gau conceded that "AOL
isn't immune from online vandals," and "Recently, some partner areas have
been defaced..." 

Clinging to at least the appearance of invulnerability, Gau urged content
partners not to speak to the media if their area is hacked--adding that
"We maintain a zero tolerance policy toward individuals engaging in
disruptive and/or criminal behavior in cyberspace..."  That night, hackers
launched more attacks, and by Thursday, the Kids Kicks area had been
modified.  "HeX OwNS You wh0res" read one menu option. 

The hackers produced a total of four new screens.  
( )  One displayed the
announcement that "I started hacking AOL when I was 11."  More homophobic
captions appeared below the Subway restaurant's "Soccer Team of the week"
-- and the hackers had even modified the links.  ("Soccer Sucks" read the
picture accessed from the "This site is now hacked" link.)  A second menu
choice lead to a text window offering "Werd up" to 12 hackers, as well as
to AOL's terms of service advisor and "My MOM & DAD..  I love you ;) " 

The messages lingered for hours.  By 7 p.m. EST Thursday the area was
replaced ( ) by an "Under
Construction" window which advised users to "Please check again in a few

The same message has appeared for the last three days. 

And the holes persist.  Immediately after AOL shut down a hacker web page
sporting Tatiana Gau's picture -- and the pointer to their new site which
the hackers had then snuck into its place -- the hackers returned to AOL's
service yet again, and installed a new pointer to their latest location. 
( ) 

But AOL's content remains in disarray -- even without hackers!  Though
they fired their "AnswerMan" and his 9-person staff, keyword AnswerMan
still announces that "AnswerMan is here to help you find your way around
the internet....."  A cartoon announces "Click Me To See The Weekly
Focus!" -- but the clicks result in a message stating that "the AnswerMan
forum is being closed."  And a link titled "Click here for the scoop"
points to a newsletter in which all information regarding Answerman's
departure has been edited out. ( )

The deletions hide an embarrassing truth:  AOL is downsizing. "AOL's
Jacksonville, Florida call center has taken all of its full-time employees
and made them part-time employees to help cut costs," one staffer told the
AOL List.  "AOL has cancelled all trade show appearances for the next
year!" another source commented from the floor of the PC Expo in New York
City.  And after six years, AOL's NeverWinter Nights...ended. "In my
opinion, AOL is just laying down a smokescreen to cover the fact that they
are losing money hand over fist, that their 'unlimited' pricing didn't
quite work out the way they hoped, the loss of many smaller vendors due to
their demands of cash to keep your area on AOL, etc"  one of the area's
staffers wrote in a letter to CBS News.

In 1995, a Usenet poster remembered a fan who had been playing the game
for four years.  "This person went on to say that his AOL bill had topped
ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS one month."  That same bill would be $20 today.  "The
reality of the issue is that AOL wants to keep it's coffers full and if
that means the destruction of an entire community of dedicated game
enthusiast, then so be it," one subscriber complained

Loyal players noted that "the various public message boards that AOL
provides are ironically ablaze with hostile comments and threats to cancel
accounts." ( ) 
Impassioned e-mail urged the gamers to take their stories to the media. 
"All we are to AOL is dollar signs," another message complained. 
( )  A copy received by the AOL List
had been circulated to over 250 members. ("This is just a fraction of the
people and a fraction of the rage..." the sender added.) 

Even the game's management was upset.  "I'm sorry that it's only a month's
notice," an on-line announcement read, "but that is all the notice we
were given."  Palpable sadness echoed through their farewell.  "I wish I
had any words that could ease the pain of that news," the announcement
continued -- "any words to help with the loss of this community that many
of us hold close to our hearts.  But I honestly don't believe that anyone
does."  One staffer noted that relationships between gamers became so
close, "many have ended in marriage."  The farewell announcement closed
with "a wish that your journeys take you to your fantasy wish.  Safe
journeys to you all." 

AOL may have worried the game would interfere with their
recently-announced plans to charge $2.00 an hour for other games.
Ironically, as soon as that pricing was announced, an e-mail campaign
involving nearly 200 AOL users began protesting it.
( )

Seema Chowdhury, an analyst with Forrester Research, wasn't optimistic
about AOL's prospects. (,4,11606,00.html ) 
"Consumers will find what's free," she told C|Net.  "Paying to play games
is just not something consumers are ready to do. They're going to go
hunting for the free stuff and they'll find it." 

Indeed.  Currently all six of AOL's WorldPlay games have free internet
counterparts -- raising the question of why subscribers would pay $2.00 an
hour to play AOL's version. 


But AOL's efforts mean the end for the role-playing game.  "When AOL went
to flat rate, it wasn't to keep teenagers online for hours and hours,
clogging up their networks," one analyst told Media Daily.

He added that "Gamers are AOL's worst nightmare right now."


Apparently even AOL staffers were kept in the dark about 12-hour mail
delays -- and the 45-minute outage.  The same day, AOL's public relations
department issued a press release quoting Senior Vice President Matthew
Korn as saying "AOL is committed to providing our members with the
state-of-the-art technology that will best enhance their online
experience."  ( ) 

As the 12-hour delays continued over the next five days, AOL's marketers
mailed thousands of floppy disks to former members.  "We're ready for
you!" the packages barked.  "Bigger!  Better! Faster!" 

        David Cassel
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