CYBERSHOCK: AOL's Ghetto living

I've always known that no matter how much effort I put into this column, no matter how many great angles I reported, no matter how many original insights I presented, I would never be accepted by the technoscenti. You see, I bear a stigma -- the scarlet A of the cyberset, if you will -- an AOL email address.That's right, the email address printed at the bottom of this column is cybrshck@aol.com, and having an America Online address is no way to win points with the plugged-in crowd.I have a handful of email addresses, but I often use the AOL address for several reasons. First, AOL gives me free service because I'm a computer journalist -- it's a ploy, of course, on the company's part to expose journalists to its service and to get its name published in email addresses. Second, some of AOL's five million subscribers, not surprisingly, are friends and people I do business with. And finally, there's a perverse part of me that enjoys being something of a pariah.The anti-AOL backlash is widespread. I have participated in on-line discussion groups in which poorly regarded postings have elicited responses like, "That's the kind of idiot comment we'd expect from you AOL morons." A friend of mine once pitched a story to Wired and was warned by an editor there that his AOL email address was uncool. And a few months back I got email from someone who trumpeted, "I'm finally getting out of this AOL ghetto."The greatest example of how deep this AOL antipathy runs came in a March 11 Associated Press article about the Bruce Black case. Black is an acknowledged pedophile who used his AOL account to exchange child pornography with others on the Internet. When the FBI's Operation Innocent Images presented AOL with a warrant, the company handed over Black's email files and the images they contained. Black was fired from his job with the Boy Scouts and is on trial on nine federal counts.Although the case of Black and more than a dozen AOL users arrested under similar circumstances raises some interesting questions about the privacy of email, the AP article notes that "few on-line activists along the electronic frontier are willing to support Black." Explanations included general disdain for pedophilia, the lack of a famous defendant, and the fact that the FBI apparently played by the rules. But according to the article, David Sobel, staff lawyer for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, suggested one more factor. "Another reason," I read in the article, "is that America Online and its users 'tend to be scoffed at generally' by many on the Internet, [Sobel] said."I think Sobel's right, and that's distressing. I have a lot of complaints about AOL. The company, like most service providers, is having trouble staying ahead of the growth curve. Busy signals are common, and gateways are so crowded that mail sometimes doesn't make it through. The company's PC browser is a piece of junk and its Mac browser is worse (deals cut in the last two weeks with Netscape, Microsoft, and Sun should remedy this). And I do think AOL might have done a little more thinking before complying with the FBI warrant. There are certainly a lot of good reasons to trash AOL, not the least of which is the company's attempt to make itself the McDonald's of the on-line world.But we're not just talking about people trashing AOL; we're talking about people trashing AOL's users. And that, I believe, is because AOL is letting the plebes, with their uncourtly ways, into the castle. Internet advocates like to talk about many-to-many communication, but some of them don't seem too pleased about letting the unwashed masses be part of that mass conversation. They talk about the Net fostering electronic democracy, enlightened libertarianism, and progressive anarchy, but heaven forbid that the people from Peoria should be part of politics in the Information Age.This AOL backlash reeks of elitism and classism, unflattering traits not uncommon in cyberspace, a frontier largely explored by the educated and the affluent. Consider, for example, the readership statistics of Wired. The typical reader has an average household income of $120,000, a net worth of approximately $603,000, and an average discretionary income of $1,342 per month. Wired bills itself as the magazine of the "digital revolution." If what we are witnessing is indeed a revolution, then like so many before it, it is being driven by the intelligentsia and the elite. And the "revolutionaries" have evidenced little patience for the proletariat.I keep going back to the email that made reference to "the AOL ghetto." I've found that the term ghetto is typically used as much to disparage the residents of a place as the place itself. When employed metaphorically, it immediately labels the inhabitants of a place as a lower, less desirable class of people. Any society that feels a need to designate areas as ghettos -- whether they are physical places or virtual communities, whether the separations are based on race, class, religion, or income or on technological sophistication -- doesn't strike me as particularly revolutionary.If you disagree, you can always write to me -- at my address in the ghetto.

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