The AOL List: Un-Guided

David Cassel (
Sun, 17 Aug 1997 23:18:22 -0700 (PDT)

			  U n - G u i d e d


Users visiting Spin magazine's AOL area Sunday found a surprise.  Its
"Digital Rec Room" bore the message "Spin Online is so fucking lame."

Attackers had visited, leaving a sarcastic message in its title bar. 
"Damn, AOL is so secure!"  The area was repaired by Monday -- but signs of
confusion remained in its title: "SPINonline:  Not Quite Sure What's Going

"If AOL can't keep a bunch of snot-nosed teenagers from hacking its own
supposedly secure internal areas, do I REALLY want to send my private
financial information to a vendor on AOL?" one web page asks.  
( )  This
represents the 12th content area to be hacked since Spring, suggesting
AOL experiences security problems along with service problems.  But it
could get worse. Claiming in-house sources, a Guide presented his news
Sunday: "They are disbanding the Guides August 28th."

Guide managers refused to confirm or deny it -- but the staffers are
complaining about the way the situation was handled.  Guides received the
date not from AOL but from a taunting prankster. "GUIDE D00DS!" read the
messages B0BD0LE sent to 280 Guides. " I BRING U A MESSAGE OF EVIL!!!!" 

Over the last year the mysterious figure has e-mailed his predictions to
Guides -- en masse -- which have later proven to be true.  Now he's
predicting their demise.  "THERE WILL BE NO MO GUIDES AFTER AUGST 28....U

Then he offered Steve Case's phone number for complaints. 

Despair set in.  Posts on Community Leader boards are already envisioning
the final days.  "Since AOL owns their Guide accounts, AOL will just
change the passwords...forcing members to delete these screen names from
their interface because they can't access them." 

"They picked the 28th so they could scoot out on us for the 3-day weekend
and not take any flack," one Guide grumbled to the AOL List. 

But morale was already low.  "180 Guides have resigned in the last few
months," one staffer told the AOL List.  At least five Guides have been
fired for complaints about AOL's policies. 

In fact, the Guide program is in disarray.  "Thank you for making us aware
of a problem area online," read the form response one user received. 
"Guides are regular members who volunteer their time to help other AOL
members.  Unfortunately, volunteers are not always available. No Guide is
available to come to the room you are having trouble in today......" If
the Guide program ends, it could be worse.  "There's a supposed riot
planned for the 29th," a Guide stated "and it would be very interesting to
see what happens when there are no Guides....and very interesting to see
how the members feel about getting thrown to the wolves."

Those fears are well-founded, according to the organizer of a software
group called Rage against America Online.  "We are getting ready to come
back to AOL as of the first of September," he told the AOL List, "when the
Guide program is shut down once and for all." 

"There will be a massive online riot on the 5th of September.  There will
be major TOSsing, Punting and IM bombing against the regular members of
AOL, just to show them what kind of mistake they are making by killing the

Guide are pondering the implications of AOL's latest moves.  "Extreme cost
cutting and manipulation of the books to show added revenue is what every
corporation does to enhance the value of assets a year or more before they
plan to sell. I would expect to see more cost cutting measures."  In fact,
while the Columbus Dispatch cites one analyst's rumors that AOL will offer
$1 billion for CompuServe next week
( ) other rumors
percolate about a big company investing money in AOL.  Could it be
Microsoft?  AOL staffers have already begun speculating about the
possibility.  ("What can we lose?" one asked.  "If you have MSN, you may
not like it, but at least there are no advertisements in the chat rooms!")

Meanwhile, users should watch their wallets.  "Price Increases Possible
Over Next Year" reads one headline in AOL's "Full Disclosure" area.  Its
"Analyst's Corner" section displays new analysis from Robertson, Stephens
& Co. stating "Given eased competitive pressure, we believe it is possible
that AOL may be able to effectively raise prices eventually."  Citing the
possibility of "subtle methods" like "charging for the second and more
screen names" and "the elimination of discounts on membership
prepayments," the firm warns subscribers shouldn't get too attached to
their current flat-rate pricing.  "It is even possible that AOL could
raise its base rate."  (The analyst notes AOL already has plans to
introduce a "premium channel" for finance.) 

Matching $20-a-month pricing offered by internet providers hasn't proven
profitable for AOL.  Losses in the last two quarters show they need more
profits and fewer expenses.  As a result, AOL is squeezing long-standing
content providers.  AOL is now demanding they pay rent just to maintain
their places on AOL ( )  -- and
those who don't provide it get axed. 

MetaSquares, for instance.  Without any warning, AOL posted an August 14
announcement that the area would close two and a half weeks later. 
"MetaCreations wishes to apologize for the thoughtless way in which our
loyal fans and followers were notified," read a company press release,
"about AOL's decision, not ours, to discontinue the MetaSquares game area
for approximately 80,000 Mac and Windows-based subscribers."

Noting they'd misspelled the name of the game, a spokesman told Newsbytes
that they "buried our game because it was free" -- then announced its
termination when the service refused to pay a five-figure fee.  
( )
Hundreds of messages clogged the area's folder. 

"Apparently this is AOL's solution to its busy signal problem." 

"I'm beginning to wonder if there are any real benefits to having AOL over
another on-line service." 

Even the press was hostile.  "AOL fuhrer Steve Case continued his
successful campaign to rid AOL of subscribers," a Pathfinder columnist
quipped.  "More bandwidth for the survivors, I guess." 
(,1012,1295,00.html )

But they're not the only area feeling the heat.  "America Online wants
Gamewiz to leave AOL," a staffer announced in the GameWiz newsletter. 
Angry users have created a protest page
( )  But there's a forgotten
toll in AOL's latest scheme to squeeze revenue from gamers.  The "Voice of
Resistance"  newsletter tells the story of a boy returning to his favorite
game.  "The child was saying HHHEEEELLLLOOOOO...... in an empty chatroom. 
When asked what he was doing, he said he was 'listening to his ECHO'... 
None of his old friends were able to play the games because of the new
pricing."  ( ) 

Cost-cutting strikes everywhere.  AOL's also curtailed appearances at
trade shows.  "AOL was not at the MacWorld expo in Boston last week," one
AOL List reader reports. (Adding that "Last year, their presence at the
Expo was dimmed because it was at the same time of that now-everyday 18
hour crash.")  And chat room names are now policed by robo-cops. 
( )
Automated filters screen the names of user-created chat rooms for words
like hacker, GIF, and even boy.  (Ironically, even the word "Forbidden" is
forbidden.)  The clumsy filter also blocks phrases like "Christmas gifts"
and "Boycott racism" -- and last week a user discovered his family surname
couldn't be entered in their user profile. 
( ) 

It's a sign of the times when Digital Cities falls to hackers.  Vandals
entered its San Diego component Saturday, changing text pointing to its
Auto area ("Great car deals, maintenance by dummies") to "Click here to
see Steve Case naked."  As AOL's welcome screen directed users to the AOL
Computer Protection Center, the pranksters left graffiti in the area's
title bar.  "Glaze and BBQ own Digital City."

They left a message.  "GOD DAMN! AOL IS SOOOOOO FUCKING SECURE!" read the
caption for a picture -- directly above an ad for Auto-Tel.  Their
handiwork lasted seven hours, until AOL replaced its original caption.

"Whiteflies can ravage plants like this," it read.  "Our online gardener
Damon helps you get revenge!" 


AOL's service may be melting under the strain.  Saturday night a Guide
received a test message they'd sent themself -- Wednesday.  "Three days to
get here!" they complained.  "Yeeeeeeeeeeeeesh." 

Ironically, messages in AOL mailboxes appear above a modem ad -- promising
"Faster e- mail." 

     David Cassel
     More Information -,4,13408,00.html


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