I've invested three years of my life here, and I don't want someone else to take it over."One might expect that the people suing AOL would be those who saw their areas fatten into cash cows - folks with a clear beef.But that's not how it happened: The lawsuit and the federal complaints were filed by a community of ex-CLs that started its own Web site, in 1998.Meanwhile, the other 13,643-odd volunteers continue to report to "work" on AOL.
And what in the world did AOL do to anger this posse?
As much as the lawsuit's outcome will set a precedent for compensating online labor in the future, it offers a window into the weird and wacky world of cyber-codependence - right at the intersection between corporate and personal identity."I'm torn by the lawsuit," says Nancy, who is typical of the dozen CLs interviewed for this story.
__Call them volunteers, remote staff, or community leaders - they are the human face of AOL. Six months ago seven former AOL community leaders asked the Department of Labor to investigate whether AOL owes them back wages.
They host chats, clean scatological posts off the message boards, and bust jerks for terms-of-service violations. On May 25, two of the seven filed a complaint against AOL in federal court in New York, the first volley in a class-action lawsuit that is expected to drag on for over a year.
Chat was far cheaper to produce than content - and far more lucrative.
Everything changed in December of 1996, when AOL moved to a flat-rate pricing system: unlimited access for .95 a month. Worse, chatty members clogged AOL's servers and threatened to crash the system. Without the hundreds of dollars worth of free hours, more than half left.
At first, AOL didn't seem to know what to do with the remaining volunteers - whether to keep them or let them go.
It briefly considered charging them .95 a month for their accounts.
Every conversation was different, but each began the same way. If they were older, they'd disappear keenly aware that being seen in a chat room with a child wasn't a good look.