Revenge of the AOL Nerds
Scott Eveland was blithely cruising the Internet when he spotted a newsgroup called alt.aol-sucks. His curiosity got the better of him.
The group is devoted to trashing America Online and its users. People from all over the world post messages under headings like "Stupid-Ass AOLers Strike Again," "Declaring War on AOL," and "AOL.Sucks.Period."
It hurt Scott Eveland's pride.
After all, hadn't AOL connected his lonely computer in Hastings, Nebraska, to the vast reaches of cyberspace? Wasn't he wired? He posted a message to the group, asking why everyone was so down on AOL.
He wasn't prepared for the venomous replies.
"I got some big nasty flames after that," says Eveland, a 32-year-old police dispatcher in Hastings. "They sent me e-mail threatening that if I ever posted a message there again they'd mail-bomb me.
"I don't even know what a mail bomb is!"
A mail bomb is when someone sends you so many e-mail messages your mailbox is instantly filled to capacity. You can't get any new messages until you delete all the old mail.
"That would be a pain," Eveland says. "Especially 'cause AOL doesn't let you delete your mail. It just stays there for 7 days."
What Eveland didn't know was that many people who've been on-line for years have a chip on their shoulder. They resent him and what he represents: the suburbanization of the new frontier.
What was once a dark labyrinth accessible only to technical sophisticates now features vast, brightly-lit neighborhoods where every cul-de-sac is neatly labeled with a point-and-click icon.
So-called newbies, especially newbies from AOL, are decidedly unpopular in cyberspace.
"EAT SHIT AOL'ers!!!" screams the headline at the top of a World Wide Web page dedicated to America's fastest growing on-line service.
Directly underneath, there's a photo of a pathetic-looking man doing just that, as a woman in thigh-high leather boots sits spread-eagled above his face.
"A message to all AOL'ers from Lord Saber..." the page continues. "Get a real Internet provider...
"You may be a very kewl person...
"But as long as you access the net from AOL...
The creator of the page is Sabercat, a/k/a Lord Saber.
In real life, his handle is John Laroche, Plant Nursery Manager for the Seminole tribe in Miami, Florida, and master of his own elaborate corner of cyberspace.
Laroche loves nothing better than to torment AOL'ers.
"It's the only socially acceptable form of bigotry left on Earth," he says. "When you're on-line, whether you're black or white, gay or straight, I don't know and I don't care. But you can't miss that aol.com address."
For net vets like Sabercat, an AOL address is synonymous with the eager beaver, someone who's both presumptuous and ignorant. It's the on-line equivalent of plaid shorts, black socks, and a camcorder: the mark of an Ugly American, a tourist who's about as lost in cyberspace as he would be in Venice.
GREEN CARD TO CYBERSPACE
Maybe tourist is the wrong word. Call them virtual immigrants. They've been landing in cyberspace in droves for the past two years, gradually transforming a network once peopled mainly by scientists and computer geeks.
Ellis Island for most new arrivals is one of the Big Three service providers: AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy. Together they boast more than 8 million subscribers. AOL alone claims to add some 5,000 new users every day, a faster growth rate than any of its competitors.
"All you need is Mommy's credit card." Laroche sneers. "It's become so moronically easy to go on-line. Now, every lame-ass geek who doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground is suddenly cruising the net."
Laroche and others complain that AOL itself is largely to blame for the newbies' inevitable breaches of protocol. AOL has focused too much on building a subscriber base, they charge, and the service has let slip its responsibility to train its users in the Internet's social and technical graces.
The AOL'ers mistakes are not merely annoying. They're also costly. Most people have to pay for the time they're connected to the Internet, so clutter is unwelcome.
"We're getting tired of those damned kids honking their horns and tossing their beer cans everywhere," says Daniel Dern, Newton-based author of The Internet Guide for New Users<> (McGraw Hill).
"AOL brags how it's made the Internet safe for Grandma, but it's done little to make Grandma safe for the Internet," says Dern
But some reject that there ever was a golden age in cyberspace.
"People said the same thing in Arizona back in the 1860's," says Clifford Stoll, author of Silicon Snake Oil, Second Thoughts on the Information Highway<> (Doubleday). "They blamed the railroad for bringing out West all kinds of lazy, good-for-nothing shifters, folks who didn't have to struggle to get there. If I had to choose, I'd rather have all the bumbling AOL users than some of the more malicious people at the bigger computers who have real power to abuse the net."
Among the most common complaints about AOL newbies is that they are bulls in the china shop, interrupting discussion groups to ask questions about things they should have learned before going on-line.
Perhaps because so many of them are teenage boys using their parents accounts, these newbies often seem obsessed with sex.
They'll post messages in the genealogy newsgroup asking for the location of dirty pictures, or they'll type bumbling come-ons to all interested parties.
One recent contribution to the alt.aol-sucks newsgroup quotes a typical message posted to the world by a hapless AOL'er:
>> RE: SEXXY GIRLS
>> Interested in exploring the aforementioned newsgroup...
>> Awaiting your reply...
To which, the critic in alt.aol-sucks adds:
"Note the pronounced slope of this cave dwelling primate's forehead... the guttural rasp of its call into a newsgroup --'Hello? Is Anybody there? I'm awaiting your reply, O'Master. SPOON FEED Me!'"
Inevitably, some AOL critics don't stop at mockery. Despite AOL's best efforts to build a safe, sanitary neighborhood on the Infobahn, cyberspace is still largely a lawless frontier. Complete with its own band of vigilantes.
So-called "flame wars," where hackers assault each other with wit and computer venom, have been common on the Internet for years. But the popular sport of AOL bashing has spawned a special point-and-click program specifically designed to bully AOL'ers.
Called AOHell, the software is as easy to use as AOL itself. Click on the Punt icon, and you'll be able to force an AOL user off-line. Click Mail Bomb, and you can choose between bombing her e-mail, fax, or US Mail address. (AOL offers a special feature that will send messages to a "snail mail" address.) Other features allow you to put words in people's mouths by sending e-mail from their addresses, to pester a particular chat room continuously, and to give everyone in a chat room the virtual finger.
The program, available for free if you ask the right people, comes with its own Credit Card Generator, allowing users to assign themselves a valid Visa, MasterCard or Discover Card number on any of more than 100 different banks. That way, AOHell'ers can log onto America Online for free under false names the better to torment its users without detection.
"It's very juvenile, very sophomoric, but it's also very fun," admits Miami hacker Laroche.
But to others, AOHell is the ultimate emblem of an empty ideal: the Virtual Community.
"This is the equivalent of dropping nails onto the Information Highway," says author Stoll. "In a world where you never have to confront someone face to face, all the social niceties disappear."