AOL Watch ("The AOL List): Case's Last Stand

David Cassel (
Fri, 19 Dec 1997 04:39:20 -0800 (PST)

		   C a s e ' s   L a s t   S t a n d


Beginning Friday, "adult-designated chat rooms will utilize our 'Notify
AOL' capability, instead of paging guides," AOL told staffers Wednesday. 

Arguing that it's "more efficient" to address calls to Guides without
offering immediate responses, AOL announced that those resources would now
be allocated to children's areas.  ( ) 
"Children will continue to be able to page a guide via the Guidepager for
Kids feature," but during the transition, "Keyword:  Guide Pager will link
to the 'Notify AOL' form, which will educate members about how to report

The children's-safety rhetoric doesn't wash, AOL staffers say.  "The
reasons stated for doing away with Guide Pager are a complete sham," an
in-house observer told AOL Watch. "There are roughly 5-6 kids pages for
every 100 Guide pages." 

"Many think this is just the beginning of the end of the Guide Program," 
another Guide told AOL Watch.  One exasperated staffer added "I cannot
believe that AOL has actually gone this far." 

When AOL first cut back on Guide Pagers, the staffer felt it was "a test
of whether Guides not responding to pagers is a problem or not." 
( )  At least one worker feels AOL
has surrendered the service to troublemakers.  "They have won the battle." 

Other Guides also voiced disgust for AOL's policy.  "AOL is no longer a
cyber representation of Main Street U.S.A," one complained.  "Instead it
has become the back alleyways of the seediest, most corrupt city one could
imagine."  Another voiced their concerns through a letter of resignation. 
"I no longer can tolerate the hypocrisy of the management at AOL," they
wrote, "and cannot justify spending money to keep this service." What
about AOL's claims of safety?  "Communities are sitting ducks on AOL." 

Their discouragement seems universal.  "In the past week at least four
guides have resigned and two have left AOL entirely," another Guide told
AOL Watch.  Coincidentally, the volunteer host for an AOL music board also
posted December 8 that "after four years of trying to be of some use as a
host, we are giving up."  (Their board received national press coverage
after death threats were posted in 1995.)  But some relationships have
gotten even worse.  AOL apparently moved to suppress a web page
criticizing AOL's management of the Guide program.  According to text at "America Online has
threatened they would take legal action against me if my Community Leader
Organization web pages were not removed." 

The webmaster complied -- but noted pointedly that "web pages which look
strikingly like the ones I created were just publicly posted on a web site
which I do not even own."  One even offers a parody of AOL's new policy. 
"  'Notify AAOL Staff' chat room buttons or (linkword: SUCKER) gives
members a time-consuming, twenty-step mechanism to report chat complaints
directly to the Community Noaction Team's purge folder,"  it announces.  
( )  "We've
found the 'Notify AAOL Staff' form to be a much more efficient way for
members to address their questions and complaints, since we just installed
a new generic form-letter response generator."

In 1996, AOL cancelled 370,000 accounts in one three-month period of time
for "credit card fraud, hacking, etc.", the Washington Post reports
(9/16/96).  Facing an entrenched population of ill-wishers, being a Guide
isn't easy.  One Guide told the story of hacker-like troublemakers who
presented him "with his real name, address and phone number, just as he
had entered it at Keyword BILLING."  According to the Guide's web page,
AOL denied there was a problem, and when the Guide persisted in
complaining, his bosses "didn't like having an angry Guide around" -- so
they fired him, and blackballed the Guide from further positions. 
( )  Another Guide tells a similar
story. "Essentially, my account information was accessed, somehow.  It was
sent back to me by 'Instant Message', by one of the people who at the time
was making a point of harassing certain folks here online..." 

Ironically, this month Steve Case touted AOL's safety in his monthly
"Community Update".  Though he emphasized family safety, AOL has shown a
remarkable inability to create appropriate content for children. 
( )  AOL's Christmas special on ABC
television -- "Ozzie the Elf" -- was the lowest-rated show on the major
networks for the week -- ranking 103rd.  At least 86% of the TV's in use
at that time were watching another program, and though 97 million homes in
America have televisions, 93.57 million of them found better things to do
than watch AOL's program.  Only nine shows on the UPN network had fewer
viewers (and five on the Warner Brothers network) -- and a special episode
of "Cops" drew nearly twice as many viewers.
( )  

Last month Business Week reported that "the pizza-loving Elf could be the
first hit out of AOL Studios, the content arm established a year ago to
help transform the No. 1 online service into a media giant."  But it
wasn't.  ( ) 
Unfortunately, this was an important component of AOL's plan to become
profitable.  "The idea: to supplement low- paying subscriber fees with TV
and book licensing deals..." Business Week wrote last month.  ("They want
to be in content when the distribution business loses its power," one
analyst told the magazine.) 

On-line pundits have noted that "From the big board of his control room,
Leonsis and Case can watch the modem connections dropping as thousands of
AOL users forego the dubious pleasures of AOL People Connection in favor
of an evening with Jerry." 
( )  Nearly two years
before "Ozzie the Elf" aired, Ted Leonsis told Business Week that AOL's
real adversary is popular programs like "Seinfeld". 
( )  Ironically, nearly
six times as many people watched last week's episode of Seinfeld than
watched "Ozzie the Elf"--double the number of people who currently
subscribe to AOL, and nearly 40 times the number of connections AOL is
capable of handling simultaneously. 

But even without television, AOL's Christmas cheer leaves alot to be
desired.  The day after Steve Case told users about AOL's "Letters to
Santa" area, it went down for over 24 hours. 
( ) "Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas,
Sometimes my mailbox gets full," SantaClaus explained to one complaining
subscriber -- seven days after the original mail was sent.  Then he
re-pasted their original message.  ("Field 1 = Dear Santa...") 
Inexplicably, Santa gave a different answer to the same question three
days earlier.  ("I do not know.  Sorry!")  And a third response contained
a cut-and-pasted form letter with no answer at all (although it also
contained the phrase "Field 1 = Dear Santa...").  One paragraph ended in
mid-sentence.  ( ) 

Even Ozzie the Elf isn't immune to mistakes.  In an on-line appearance, he
even spelled "Claus" wrong (though only three people have downloaded a
transcript of the event.)  AOL's mistakes eventually affect the way they
report the news.  One AOL Watch reader says they spotted a headline
reading "Clinton: 1988 To Be Year of Action." 
( ) 

AOL's reputation for errors -- and bad oversight of their users -- may
reduce their 10 million members to second-class citizen status.  AOL
subscribers attempting to add their URL's to InfoSeek's directory service
are told that "At this time Infoseek is not indexing web pages from
certain domains through the Instant Add-URL feature."  It's not a measure
the on-line index wanted to take, but "the frequency of abuse requires us
to impose it." 

AOL's public relations officials continue to work the press--but
journalists are becoming increasingly skeptical.  "Case's call for a
'passionate' defense of free speech was delivered so dispassionately as to
be unnoticeable," Wired News wrote about Case's keynote at an Internet
World trade show.  "In fact, the audience, rather than hanging on his
words, left in droves when the address finished and the Q&A began."
( )  Baltimore
technology columnist Joab Jackson echoed the report.  "During America
Online's post-press-conference buffet, one tech writer told me he spent
the entire day in the fourth- floor press area and in the Microsoft press
booth, which, he said, had brownies." 
( ) 

AOL continues making positive statements about their service -- but
journalists aren't buying it.  "Our data shows that AOL is slow and that
its customers are dissatisfied," PC World reported recently.  "Even after
the company added extra servers to handle the high call volume, our test
results show that getting through to AOL can be difficult." 
( ) 
"What's more, AOL customers who responded to our survey complained in
droves that getting help from the service was a terrible experience. Its
rating for problem resolution was the worst, as was its rating for phone
responsiveness, online help, and overall satisfaction with tech support." 

Support is so bad, some users have begun taunting the customer service
representatives.  One subscriber contacted AOL's technical support staff
with a pressing question.  "A pilot was flying a small plane with some
passengers around when his instrument panel went out..." 

His e-mail went on to tell the story of a safe landing after the pilot
received bad advice from the ground.  "I knew it must have been the AOL
tech support building," he concludes, "and the airport is 20 minutes due

"I am writing to you on behalf of America Online to answer your recent
question/comments," read AOL's reply.

"You have waisted my time and other valued members time with this

"It's people like you who make this job a drag." 

Another customer was even more unhappy when AOL downloaded a software
upgrade to her computer which wouldn't run.  "After a lengthy wait on hold
for technical support, I was informed that I would have to re-install
AOL," she complained to AOL Watch.  She had her revenge -- by deliberately
slowing the process.  "I managed to tie up that tech for 1 1/2 hours..." 

"While in reality my install was completed and I was just wandering around
the house listening to him breathe," the support representative continued
their instructions.  "He would ask 'Okay, okay, now in the middle of the
screen - tell me what the little bar says....oh, 2%? Okay, okay, that's

Good help is hard to find. 


PC World magazine left readers with one final piece of advice.  "Remember
this the next time you get a free America Online disk in the mail:  There
are other ways to the Net. AOL may be easy to install and have loads of
content, but it's a Web surfer's nightmare." 
( ) 

Ironically, PC World is an AOL content partner. 

    David Cassel
    More Information -,4,17325,00.html


  Please forward with subscription information and headers.   To subscribe
  to this list, type your correct e-mail address in the form at the bottom
  of the page at -- or send e-mail to MAJORDOMO@CLOUD9.NET
  containing the phrase SUBSCRIBE AOL-LIST in the the message body.  

  To unsubscribe from the list, send a message to MAJORDOMO@CLOUD9.NET
  containing the phrase UNSUBSCRIBE AOL-LIST.