In light of the recent declaration by America Online that paying its online hosts and guides would constitute a violation of the "volunteer spirit of the Internet," your humble correspondent trudged into cyberspace to get the real scoop. Presented below, my interview with Cletus Linenoise, the guy who answers the tech-support phones at AOL and transfers users on hold to Outer Mongolia.
Angela Gunn: Why all the fuss?
Cletus Linenoise: America Online uses the services of unpaid volunteers to manage forums and chats, as well as to provide online help for other users. Suddenly, they feel abused and want more.
AG: You mean they get nothing?
CL: On the contrary, volunteers receive free America Online accounts—a value of $21.95/month. And it comes with the best-known and most respected e-mail address in the business: firstname.lastname@example.org. Add to that the prestige of being somebody who kicks people offline for using words like "boobs" and "asshole," and the value should be obvious.
AG: How is volunteerism part of the spirit of the Net?
CL: The Net was built by volunteers. The early programmers didn't demand money for writing e-mail packages and text editors; the first Web browsers were distributed free to all comers, and today the majority of Web sites (not to mention all of Usenet and almost every mailing list) are administered by volunteers. That's the spirit we espouse.
AG: So does America Online volunteer to share profits from the service?
CL: Of course not. You write for one of those pinko commie free weekly papers, don't you?
AG: Has anyone else ever tried this?
CL: Sort of. Back when Microsoft tried to compete with us, they approached a number of creative types asking them to make content for the service. Problem was, they presented it as work-for-hire—create it, give us the copyright, and get the hell away from us because we own it.
AG: Oh. At least AOL's a free and equal collective-type partnership, right?
AG: Except that AOL has volunteers punch in for work and follow a schedule.
AG: And except that AOL boots volunteers for voicing disagreement with policies like payment of volunteers.
AG: Do the AOL trains run on time?
CL: Excuse me?
AG: Never mind. What happens now?
CL: Legally, it's unlikely that the volunteers have a leg to stand on—after all, they knew and agreed to the terms. It's hard to unring the bell and make a case that there were onerous conditions put on their service. As for the guides themselves, they're free to leave, or to purchase regular AOL accounts. Now that we offer an inexpensive unlimited-use package, there's not a tremendous economic barrier. It would be hard to prove how volunteers have been ma-terially harmed. As for volunteer labor—well, let's just say that with 17 million subscribers we can probably find someone to fill in.
AG: Wait. America Online actually has a legal basis for its stance. Why didn't you just say so, instead of dragging the spirit of the Net into things?
CL: For years, we've tried to convince the Net community that we're just as real a part of the Net as they are. We've lost money, we've done stupid stock tricks, we've carpet- bombed the masses with disks and CD-ROMs. People still insist on treating us like a red-headed stepchild. But take a look at the condition of the Net today. We didn't have to rise to its level; we dragged it down to ours! Take a look at the gap between the AOLs and Go.coms of the world and the rabble of pathetic-looking "labors of love" that most people never visit anymore. Invoke the spirit of the Net? Young lady—we are the spirit of the Net, now!