Why America Online pisses me off

I tried AOL once.

I finally succumbed to one of those ubiquitous and innumerable free trial CDs, half because I was curious and half because I really had enough drink coasters. So I popped it in, signed up fairly effortlessly, and thought I'd try it out for a month. They said it'd only be $9.95 a month for me, since I didn't need to dialup and could just telnet from my own ISP instead, so it seemed like a safe bet. I was also getting really tired of IRC and its denizens, and wanted to check out the online chat scene on AOL. Yes, I know ... what was I thinking of? Rest assured that I've pretty much dispensed with online chat in general, except to use ICQ to keep in touch with friends.

I hated it.

Where do I begin? The interface. The sounds. The spam. (Without ever even publishing, posting or revealing my AOL address in any way, I was deluged with spam.) The amazing difficulty of navigation, even though it's supposed to be for net.amateurs. Just finding the chat room I was looking for was an ordeal, and when I got there, it was "full", because they don't allow more than 25 users per chat room. The access software was huge and bloated and didn't seem terribly stable. Plus, content on AOL is censored, both in posts and by monitors in chat rooms. Feh. This wasn't even worth ten bucks a month for me, so I decided to quit after a couple of weeks.

Anti-AOL sites for your perusal:

  AOL Watch. Funny splash screen.

  Why AOL Sucks. The one AOL tried
  (and failed) to kill.

When I called AOL support to cancel, you'd think I was trying to leave a church, or renounce national citizenship or something. She affected what seemed to be a carefully rehearsed sense of hurt, and asked in a soft, shocked tone, "But why do you want to leave us?" and proceeded to pepper me with questions. I'm a nice guy, generally not a rude one, but I just cut her off -- "Can we just stop this right now and cancel me, please?" The tone on the other end of the phone got colder, and she proceeded to do so.

A month later, when I got my bill, I saw that AOL had charged me $19.95, the full dialup access rate, rather than the telnet rate of $9.95 that I had been promised. Grrrrrr.

Another call, another exhortation to rejoin, followed by a promise that they'd cheerfully credit my account ... in six to eight weeks.

"That's completely unacceptable," I said. "You were able to overcharge me in a fraction of a second, so why the hell does it take two months to refund the money which you took from me without justification?" Procedure. Sorry. Grrrrrrrrrrrr.

I checked my credit card statement over the next two months, and saw nothing. Another call to AOL left me "assured" that it'd be taken care of right away. I never saw the refund appear on my statement, and I decided just to give up and forget about it rather than continue to raise my blood pressure.

That's not the only reason AOL has pissed me off in the past. For years they were a closed system, separate unto themselves, without even any incoming or outgoing access to the rest of the net, or to any other online services. I even had internet mail at the archaic, text-based, long-dead GEnie, which was my first nationwide online service. Before that, I could even send FIDOnet email from the BBS I was on. Couldn't do that on AOL, nossir.

Then, around 1995 as I recall, AOL hit the net. I remember it well, because I was on IRC quite a lot at the time, and the onslaught of AOL users and their incredible misbehavior was like an invasion of Huns, with Attila Online urging them on. I don't intend any disrespect to the average, nice AOL user, but the people we had to deal with were not only ill-mannered, but completely lacking in any knowledge of netiquette and established Internet practice ... and AOL did nothing to inform them at the time. It got to the point where AOL was sitebanned on just about every channel I participated in. Internet elitism? Perhaps ... but lots of the griping was justified.

Finally, EFnet IRC got tired of AOL. The administrators of EFnet appealed to AOL to do something about their errant users, and were told by Eric Fichtner, AOL's Operations Administrator, and I quote: "Life sucks. Buy a helmet." EFnet responded by kicking AOL off of their IRC network, barring access from AOL's servers. (AOL users can still access EFnet, apparently, from other servers if they're willing to go to the minimal trouble to connect to one.)

This isn't the first instance of AOL ignoring established protocols and RFCs. Have you ever noticed that when you get email from an AOL user, it always looks like this:


instead of this...

feck@off.com (Chuck Taggart)

or this?

Chuck Taggart <feck@off.com>

AOL refuses to append a name to the email address, like just about everyone else in the world does, over "privacy" concerns. Sheesh ... no matter what ISP I've been on, be it PPP or a Unix shell, I've been able to set my own real name field. I can put my full name, my first name, or even a pseudonym. My friend Mark likes to retain a modicum of privacy on his email account, so he set his name field to read merely "Mark". AOL doesn't even give you the option. Consequently, I get email from people whom I don't even know how to address if they don't sign their emails.

This might seem trivial to you, but it really irritates me. When I get an email from someone, I like to know his or her name ... at least a friggin' pseudonym, so that I don't have to reply with "Hey you."

Email and IRC aren't the only examples. AOL has never been interested in Internet standards, and managed to get themselves so big that they just arrogantly expected everyone else to conform to their standards. Floppies and CD-ROMs went out by the billions, it seemed ... and suddenly there were oodles of AOL users who were unaware of the greater existence of an Internet that preceded them. And I began to detect an attitude on the part of AOL administration of "We are the Net now, so the rest of you can go to hell."

Also ... AOL censors content. Their ubiquitous content monitors look around in everything from chat rooms to bulletin boards to your personal profile, and you are restricted from saying anything you want to say. In fact, AOL's so-called "Terms of Service" guidelines are so vaguely worded that they could declare almost anything you say to be a "TOS violation" ... and quite often they do.

Now the latest ... after Netscape and ICQ are swallowed by the corporate behemoth that AOL has become, now they don't want to let the other kids play too. Both Microsoft and Yahoo have come up with their own instant messaging software that enables their users to contact users of AOL's AIM software. And AOL says, "Nuh uh." Microsoft and Yahoo get cut off, and Microsoft cries "Foul! We want open standards and an instant messaging transport protocol!" (There's delicious irony here, as Microsoft only seem to support open standards when it suits them, but that's another rant altogether.)

I have to admit that if you travel around a lot and just want a convenient, multi-city place to log in and pick up your email, or if you're one of the rare individuals who live in a town that has absolutely no ISP within local calling range, then AOL can be useful. My opinion - if you have NO alternative, use AOL. If you have ANY alternative for an ISP, you're crazy to use them.

What's my point? Do I even have one? Not really ... other than "AOL does not equal the Internet", and they should really learn to get along with everyone else. Maybe the Netscape people can do something about this, and maybe not. And once again, if you have ANY alternative to using AOL, use it and dump them today. If you need help finding one, go to a site called "The List" and find an ISP in your area.

Okay, I'll shut up and go soak my head now.

-- Chuck


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Chuck Taggart   (e-mail chuck)