He was the last person I expected to see in a Gap ad. But there he was, staring up from the pages of Newsweek. Not some hip, young artist in a black t-shirt, or Ernest Hemingway in a photo appropriated by an ad director who never got past the first chapter of The Sun Also Rises, but a bland, lumpy-looking young executive, crouched on some vaguely postmodern piece of furniture, wearing khakis.

It was none other than Steve Case, president and chief executive officer of America Online, which touts itself as the “fastest-growing online service in America.” These days, it’s almost impossible to avoid its advertisements. The Chicago Tribune hypes its “online version,” avalable only through AOL (not suprising, since the Tribune company owns about 8 percent of AOL). Full-page ads appear in magazines ranging from Popular Mechanics to New Republic. Free trial disks fall out of computer magazines and mailboxes. I’ve gotten perhaps a dozen of the disks, and I never asked for one. AOL has not only won the battle of the disks, but it has managed to acquire a certain cachet. Compuserve may play host to Rush Limbaugh, and Prodigy may have Tom Snyder–but AOL has Courtney Love.

At least at the moment. Love is a regular participant in on-line discussions on AOL, holding forth in live chat sessions and posting notes to AOL’s Courtney Love bulletin board. Without question she’s a draw for the young, computer-aware Generations X, Y and Z–and without question most of her appearances violate AOL’s regulations on on-line speech, or “terms of service”, known affectionately as TOS.

Love–who announced her appearance on one online chat with a proud “ta da kiss my ass” and her departure with a terse “ta fuckin ta”–gets away with things that would get the typical AOLer TOSed off the system. AOL executives are certainly aware of the double standard; it’s what you get when you try to market yourself as a wholesome “family-oriented” service at the same time you’re trying to appeal to America’s lucrative “alternative” market. This spring, disturbed by the nasty tenor of some of the discussion, shut down the Courtney Love board for a time, but it’s up again. Not all celebrities have been so favored: comedian Margaret Cho got herself banished from AOL after she made a few overly spicy remarks.

For many denizens of the Internet, AOL’s hip reputation in the real world is something of a mystery. To them, AOL is simply an overhyped, overpriced internet provider with cutesy graphics and onerous restrictions, and its users are not representatives of a cybersavvy, cutting-edge elite, but clueless “newbies” too stupid to find a better deal. Hatred of the company and its users runs surprisingly deep. Many on the net see an “aol.com” at the end of an E-mail address as evidence of ignorance, loutishness and worse.

Stories about AOL abuses are legion on the Net, and the electronic bulletin boards known as Usenet “newsgroups” periodically break out in fits of AOL bashing. Much of the complaining stems from the reputation of AOL users as obnoxious upstarts who haven’t taken the time to learn the ropes of their new world. The attacks aren’t always subtle. “Anyone who is still a AOL member is a total moron,” one on-line critic snarled. “Do the world a favor and commit suicide, you pathetic assholes!” Xino and Softie, summarized their opinion of “AOLosers” in the form of a makeshift blues song:

Barney has more taste

Than these lifeless, stupid dweebs

All of them combined

Have the IQ of Bungcheese

The locus of AOL-bashing on the Net is a popular newsgroup called, with adolescent bluntness, alt.aol-sucks. I’ve been following the group almost obsessively for some nine months or so, reading nearly everything posted on it and adding an occasional comment of my own. (I’m not the only one who’s discovered the group: the best estimates put the number of regular readers at something close to 50,000.) After an initial period of mutual suspicion and even dislike–I’d written a piece about the group that wasn’t altogether flattering for In These Times–I settled in as an anti-AOL convert and was accepted, more or less, as one of the regulars. I don’t share their passionate hatred of AOL–most of my posts are bemused wonderings or catty asides–but I do share their concerns.

Like many Newsgroups devoted to the art of “flaming”–a sort of electronic cross between a parliamentary debate and a street brawl–alt.aol-sucks has its kooks, and group discussions often takes on a surrealistic air. A few regulars have been known to post surreptitiously from alternate accounts, posing as particularly obnoxious AOLers to provoke the others; perhaps hungry for attention, a few have even been known to indulge in elaborate flame wars with themselves. A few prankish hackers have also taken to distributing a program called AoHell, designed to help novice troublemakers disrupt life on AOL as much as possible; among other things, it has allowed them to generate credit card numbers that get them endless streams of free ten-hour trials.

But the group is also home to a devoted bunch of on-line activists, ranging from teenage hackers to college students to self-made businessmen to thirtysomething California radicals with a taste for Lenny Bruce, who studiously assemble lists of AOL problems and abuses. (Their campaign against AOL represents an odd, peculiarly postmodern, kind of politics. It’s conducted without planning meetings or petitions or placards–indeed, without any public presence at all in the traditional sense.) With only a few exceptions, those who’ve been around the group for more than a few months don’t spend much time assailing AOL users. For them, the problem is AOL the corporation–and what AOL represents for the future of the Net.

Now plenty of things in the world that suck, from the Ebola virus to America’s Funniest Home Videos. And AOL isn’t the only on-line service to offer itself up as a conduit to the internet. Delphi, a provider based in Boston, has offered a rudimentary access for years. CompuServe and Prodigy both offer access to Usenet and some other features of the Internet. AOL isn’t even the most costly of the bunch–special features on CompuServe can run costs up to $22.80 per hour.

Indeed, for many new on-line users AOL certainly seems like the way to go. Until recently those who trolled the vast reaches of what the magazines like to call cyberspace had to master the arcane lingo of something called UNIX to understand the proper care and feeding of Internet “gophers,” to be able to make sense of things with names like TCP/IP and Anonymous FTP. Now, thanks to a new generation of elegant-looking, easy-to-use, point-and-click software, getting on-line can be almost as easy as opening up a word-processing program.

No on-line software package is quite as user-firendly as the one offered by AOL. When I first got on-line last fall, via AOL, I was quite frankly intoxicated by the possibilities, zipping through menus in search of this or that piece of software to download. The cute graphics were annoying, and I wished I could figure out a way to turn off the hearty voice that told me “welcome” each time I signed on. But soon enough I was downloading everything I could think of, filling my hard drive with this game and that. Now of course many of these programs sit unused, stored here and there on the floppy disks cluttering my room, and I racked up some considerable bills. But it was fun while it lasted.

Of course AOL offers more than software libraries. Celebrities regularly appear “live” on AOL’s “center stage.” There are dozens of on-line “chat rooms” with names such as “Best L’il Chathouse” and “The Flirts’ Nook.” Curious readers can peruse a wide variety of magazines–from American Woodworker to Spin–that are available on-line only through AOL, for those who prefer the strange pleasure of paying by the hour to read news off a computer screen. AOL offers a mixture of the useful (tax information, travel services) and the useless (including a recent “cybertour of Walt Disney World you can take from the comfort of your own home”). AOL may oversell its “exclusives”–numerous magazines and newspapers are available for free via the Internet, and on-line chat is hardly exclusive to AOL–but AOL at least makes its offerings easy to find and easy to access.

And while stories of on-line smut and perversity fill the popular press, AOL has taken great pains to reassure parents that it will do its best to keep its corner of cyberspace clean and decent–at least for those who want it that way. (Those who want sex on AOL can get all they want, so long as they’re discreet.) “We want AOL to be a friendly place for everyone, and a particularly safe place for kids,” Case explained in a recent “Dear Members” letter. “To that end, we have taken proactive steps to make sure our members have the proper tools to ensure a safe on-line environment for themselves and their children.” And they have: parents can set up their own set of “parental controls” to block access to specific features of the service that give them concern–making it impossible for children or teenagers to stumble across the sex talk in the AOL chat rooms or the pornographic pictures that are available in some Usenet newsgroups. The “terms of service” so hated by many of AOL’s critics may be quite reassuring to parents worried about their children’s exposure to sexual language and on-line bullying.

In his letters to members Cast talks often about “community.” To his critics this seems to be the sheerest hypocrisy–since, in their minds, AOL is one of the gravest threats the wider Net community has ever seen. But for many of AOL’s users Case’s words ring true. They’ve found a community of a sort in AOL–not only a simple, easy-to-use connection to on-line resources but a place to meet and chat with other “regular people” like themselves. All this has made AOL undeniably attractive to new users, and the service continues to grow at astonishing rates. Two years ago, AOL had only 300,000 members; today it has 3 million.

So what is it about AOL that inspires such vehemence, that stirs so many from so many different backgrounds to devote an hour or more a day to reading and writing messages to the group, to tracking down AOL annual reports and combing them for errors and misrepresentations? It’s a question often asked in alt.aol-sucks–usually by perplexed and vaguely indignant outsiders who have happened to wander in.

Part of the problem is certainly a matter of outlook. Most of the people who hate AOL are hard-core Net users who outgrew (or never needed) its user-friendly features. They tend to judge AOL solely as a conduit to (or polluter of) the Internet. This is actually only part of AOL’s business, but in these Net-happy days it’s an increasingly important part of the sales pitch.

AOL, certainly the brashest of the major online services–claims in its ubiquitous advertisements to offer “the best access to the Internet,” but few who’ve been on-line for any length of time would agree. It provides unreliable access to Usenet and limited access to file libraries on the Net, and only recently, after considerable delay, did it start offering access to the World Wide Web, the fastest-growing segment of the Internet.

“The services they roll out as quickly as possible aren’t fully functional,” writes Karen Ruppert in alt.aol-sucks. “They keep shoving freebie trial disks down consumers’ throats when they STILL aren’t capable of handling their current member base”–a comment that rings true to anyone who’s tried calling AOL’s generously names customer-service department–“and they still believe in that annoying policy (and I believe their guiding philosophy) of quantity over quality. No wonder they are the butt of so many jokes.”

Ruppert has a point. For the true Internet afficionado, who typically has little interest in most of its non-Net offerings, AOL is not a good deal: it charges more than the typical local internet provider for services that are often slow and sometimes impossible to access. Anyone who has logged onto AOL in the last few months has faced busy signals or been disconnected or been unable to use even the most basic AOL features (“For some reason the host has failed to respond. Please continue”). At times E-mail, which is supposed to offer nearly instantaneous communication around the world, has been delayed for several days. And AOL responds slowly, if at all, to complaints. (When I complained about being unable to access Usenet newsgroups the help staff took five days to respond with a vaguely worded and useless reply.) AOL President Steve Case fills his official pronouncements with vague evasions, barely acknowledging the problems that everyone knows are there and offering nebulous assurances that they will soon be a thing of the past.

And AOL can become very costly very quickly. Most internet providers offer flat rates, typically $20 or $30 a month for full net access 24 hours a day. AOL offers limited access and charges by the hour. Though the per-hour charges may not seem like much, they add up–particularly for those who find themselves drawn to the time-devouring world of the on-line chat rooms. Some AOL users end up paying hundreds of dollars a month to feed their on-line addiction–perhaps ten times what they’d pay with a typical local provider.

For those who’ve found a second home on the Net, paying by the hour just won’t do. So when they complain about AOL’s high prices they’re not just worried about the money naive users will spend. They’re worried that AOL-style pricing will become the industry standard, that all Net users will wind up with expensive, unreliable, pay-as-you-go access.

David Cassel, a California technical writer and the unofficial archivist for alt.aol-sucks, compares AOL executives to the robber barons of the 19th century, out to plunder a resource they did nothing to create. “If they can gull people into thinking that the Net is something AOL created, and that $3.00 an hour is a reasonable cost, they could steal the revolution, positioning themselves as the information middleman–the infotainment broker.”

For some people that’s the main problem with AOL: it’s become a symbol of the changing net. Even as the number of AOL users has been exploding, the number of users of the Internet–estimated, unreliably, at 20 million–has been growing exponentially. “Newbies” have flooded the Net in the last year, clogging the lines and filling the newsgroups with endlessly repeated basic questions.

AOL isn’t the only server to see the Net as a source of easy cash. Computer magazines are filled with Net hype, and hundreds of companies are vying for the dollars of Net newbies. AOL isn’t the only company in the world or on the Net overselling its products. Other companies bundle software that’s available free on the Net, cobble together a little bit of info on using it, and sell the packages for ridiculous prices. And while AOL’s Internet interface is more rickety than that of most decent Net providers, it’s no worse than that of the other on-line services.

But AOL is certainly the most hype-driven of the on-line services. Compuserve is stodgy and expensive, though it more or less delivers what it promises. Prodigy–a product of Sears, its online interface cluttered with advertising–is considered hopeless, passe. AOL, with all its “cutting-edge” pretensions, is a much more infuriating target.

The executives at AOL are well aware of the existence of alt.aol-sucks and its campaign. It’s clear they don’t much like the group, but–perhaps out of some residual concern for free speech, or perhaps out of a fear of being branded censors–they haven’t yet dropped it from their Usenet news feed, though they have chosen to rename it, in euphemistic AOL style, “Flames and Complaints About AOL,” which some of the regulars see as a kind of de facto censorship.

But while AOL as a whole has chosen to ignore the group, not all of its employees have. The most dramatic battle in the ongoing campaign against AOL, which I’ll call the Egelhof affair, happened almost entirely by accident. And it took place not in alt.aol-sucks but on the Web.

James Egelhof, a 17-year old high-school student and computer devotee, has been a regular contributor to alt.aol-sucks since its inception in early 1994. This past spring he pulled together a set of documents detailing various problems with the service–from its on-line censorship to its poorly designed software–and put them up for public consumption on a Web page.

The page has become popular. On a good day Egelhof gets as many as 800 new visitors, and he’s had a total of 20,000 so far. But the page hasn’t been popular with everyone. After discovering it, Jason Mitchell, AOL’s point man on Web access, went ballistic. He wrote an irate note to Egelhof’s Internet provider, Cloud9 in New York, threatening “potential legal action.” Showing an odd disregard for legal niceties and the Constitution–to say nothing of the anything-goes/free-speech culture of the Net–he argued that the very presence of Egelhof’s page on the Web constituted “harassment” of American Online. “Both as an internet user and as an AOL employee, I find his web page to be offensive and disturbing,” he wrote. “I am currently contacting our legal department to determine if they would consider Mr. Egelhof’s opinions to be libelous and to discover precedents for legal action in this medium.”

The threat didn’t stand for long. Egelhof, whose AOL account was under the name “ImCensored,” was able to locate Mitchell, whose screen name is Webmaster, on-line the following day. In a remarkable display of contrition–and with the foolish honesty of someone who clearly hasn’t spent much time in the realm of public relations–Mitchell explained that he hadn’t meant to come across as a bully.

Webmaster: I just wanted the graphics removed & was a bit shocked at your content (naive of me, no?). … You did a really good job of analyzing the problems with AOL.

IMCensored: Which is why you threaten litigation?

Webmaster: “Threaten” is such a harsh word….Litigation, too…Don’t worry. I’m in deep shit over this. Tentatively _you_ have won.”

Within a few hours, even the “tentatively” was gone. In a particularly transparent attempt at damage control, Mitchell sent Egelhof an extravagantly apologetic message, congratulating him for having a “great” screenname and suggesting that “we are looking for folks who know web.” Unaware, perhaps, that his adversary was still technically a minor, he continued: “Would you happen to be looking for a job?” (Egelhof turned down the offer.)

Within a few hours “tentatively” was gone. In another transparent attempt at damage control, Mitchell sent Egelhof an extravagantly apologetic message, congratulating him for having a “great” screen name and, unaware perhaps that his adversary was still a minor, added, “We are looking for folks who know web….Would you happen to be looking for a job?”

Mitchell’s hasty retreat had the full support of company higher-ups. Within a few days, those who complained to AOL about the incident received a letter from AOL vice president of services Lynn Chitow apologizing obliquely for Mitchell’s actions, which she stressed were the “unofficial response” of one employee.

Chitow even managed to work a sales pitch into her rambling apology. “We are not in the business of censorship and believe strongly in individual freedom of speech….The author of the web pages was expressing his views on America Online and I personally found it insightful and helpful as we strive to make it the best service it can be for our members and soon providing valuable services to the Internet via the web. We apologize for any harm this has caused for those involved, our employees and members feel passionate about America Online and as empassioned as they are to make it better, they sometimes offend others.”

That’s not an argument that’s likely to win many converts among AOL’s critics on the Net. For many of them AOL and its flood of new users mean the end of the Internet golden era. “The unwashed masses have discovered the ‘Net,” writes someone with the nom de Net of Siggy Viddy, “and they will do to it the same things the teeming masses of Europeans did when they discovered America (steal the Indians’ land, rape the land, kill all the buffaloes, etc), the same thing that’s happened to the former paradise known as Southern California, and so on. Whenever the great unwashed masses discover the latest trend/fad/great place/thing to live/do, that’s when the show’s over and it’s time to pack your bags and move on, folks.”

The sentiment that’s easy to parody, particularly when expressed by someone who’s chosen to refer to himself by such a ridiculous name and particularly when many of those calling most vehemently for “higher standards” are traders of Internet smut who don’t want to waste time downloading mangled computer pix posted by people who haven’t yet figured out the mechanics. Yet it’s silly to see the recent explosion of the Internet as some kind of colonial struggle. After all, the Net is not a limited resource–there’s still room for everyone.

Nonetheless, the Net is changing, becoming less the province of academics and computer hackers and more the province of businesses and, for a lack of a better term, regular people. Change, particularly in the virtual world of the Internet, is a complicated thing, and the dangers of destructive commercialization are very real.

Yet ironically enough it may be commercialism that brings an end to AOL’s current rapid growth. The complaints about its censorship, its corporate irresponsibility, and the alleged boorishness of its users may in the end matter less than the complaints about its price. AOL sells itself as the simplest conduit to the Internet. But new, easy-to-use software–such as the popular Netscape browser–has already made most kinds of Net exploration as easy as a the click of a mouse. And Microsoft’s much-touted Windows 95 operating system–due to be released this month–comes with built-in Net capabilities. As more and more magazines and newspapers go directly to the Internet rather than through on-line services, AOL’s much vaunted “exclusives” will begin to seem less than exclusive. Many consumers may come to see AOL the way the inhabitants of alt.aol-sucks see it: as a bad deal.

What AOL is best at isn’t Net access, but marketing. And while its costly flood of disks may pull in new susbscribers by the thousands, it’s not clear how many will stick around. AOL may still be the “fastest growing” on-line service around, but it may not prove to be much of a long distance runner.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.