AOL Inc. (also previously known as America Online) is an internet service provider and mass media corporation based out of New York. Originally providing dial-up service to millions, many gaming and role-playing ventures were associated with the services provided by the company in the 1990s and early 2000s. Outlets utilized included chat rooms, message boards, forums and AOL Instant Messenger.
America Online (AOL) is a corporation that originally provided dial-up Internet service to millions of Americans. At the start of the new Internet age in the 1990s, it provided consumers with a propitiatory content and program at an hourly fee per month. This provided individuals with access to proprietary content exclusive to users including an extensive chatroom system, easy accessibility to forums through Keyword utilization, message boards, instant messaging, e-mail services and online gaming.
With the growth of the popularity of the Internet and competition, AOL transitioned to a flat monthly rate pricing system in December 1996. They would be one of the last dial-up companies to complete this transition. However, the company was not prepared for the massive influx of new users the change would generate. Infrastructure necessary to handle the increased call volume was not ready when the announcement was made, nor were online systems to ensure compliance with America Online's Terms of Service. This led to almost sixteen months of transition issues and increased the number of users to over ten million by 1999.
In January 2000, America Online and Time Warner made public plans for a merger. The new AOL Time Warner company was seen as a business success, but led to institutional and structural problems. With increasing competition from broadband providers, an inability to adjust to market changes led to cutbacks in staffing that would impact the services that were provided to members. On April 3, 2006 the official name of the service was changed to AOL. In August of the same year, the company announced it would provide e-mail accounts and software to non-subscribers that were previously for members only. This transition to a free model for content remains in place today, although as of 2015 the company continues to report over two million dollars in revenue annually from customers still utilizing dial-up services.
The company was purchased by Verizon Communications in June 2015.
Online gaming had been a component of America Online from the very beginning. A wide variety of forums based on specific content were developed and made available to users who subscribed. Management and operations of these systems was often completed through the use of volunteers that were also known as Community Leaders (abbreviated CLs). Through administrative cost cutting moves in the early 2000s, the viability of many of these services came into question and were all but eliminated by 2005. Many organizations have continued to use resources provided by AOL including the AOL Instant Messaging program and message boards.
Multiple outlets existed within the company to aide those seeking avenues for role-playing. AOL Simming Forums were proprietary content outlets available by use by members. Operating similar to modern website portals, they allowed access to specific chat rooms, message boards, articles and material that was targeted to a topic.
Numerous official groups were sponsored by America Online starting in the early 1990s. These organizations included role-playing or simming opportunities for fans of Star Trek, Star Wars, X-Files and general science fiction. Many of these groups build the foundation for live chat and message board role-playing commonly used today. The largest and most successful of these groups was Starfleet Online (SFOL), which at its peak boasted a schedule of over seventy games each week for AOL users.
However, with the growth of cultural and corporate knowledge about the Internet, some of these sponsored activities led to legal issues for AOL. In 1995, Lucas Films threatened legal action against the company for the use of the term Star Wars on a non-role playing forum and message board without approval. The section of the service was closed almost immediately, with the unmentioned role-playing group renamed Space Wars in an attempt to avoid a lawsuit. This action also begins to impact user created content, with some community leaders censoring member posts for terms held under copyright. Due to a lack of legal knowledge at the time, the practice was openly criticized and abandoned after clarification from counsel.
In 1996, fresh from the creation of Star Trek: The Continuum under contract with MSN, Paramount Pictures sues America Online for copyright violation. The lawsuit is based on the concept that the ISP is making money off of Star Trek related terms without authorization. The result is the renaming of Starfleet Online to SpaceFleet OnLine, along with a rebranding of several games.
By 2002, America Online was struggling financially due to increased market pressure from broadband providers. Reductions in employee staff were a factor with the termination of many forums and Community Leader positions during this era. As a result, most sponsored activities were either closed or transitioned to member run. The impact was a transition to more web based applications by role-players. For example, from 1999 through 2002 the SciWorld Online Convention took place in chat rooms of America Online. However, following the drastic changes to the service, the annual meeting was cancelled for four years and returned in 2006 using IRC.
Community Leaders (CLs)
Community Leaders had a wide variety of responsibilities, ranging from hosting chat rooms, monitoring message boards and file libraries, providing customer service and particularly creating and managing forum content. Within role-playing, these individuals were often the hosts of games or sims taking place. Screen names would routinely begin with a prefix recognizing their status on the network such as OGF or HOST PCG. In return, these volunteers were reimbursed for their efforts with discounts on costs associated with using AOL. Usually recruited from the more active users of a particular online forum, Community Leaders were often very passionate about the area for which they volunteered their time. This enthusiasm usually resulted in a greater sense of community and a higher level of professionalism in that forum. This in turn gave the AOL service perceived value over the less organized World Wide Web in the eyes of new online users. Volunteers in a particular area were overseen by employees of the company, in the late 1990s known as the ACI Team. It is under this structure that organizations such as Spacefleet Online and Non Affiliated Gaming Forum were able to grow into successful groups.
However, the actual responsibilities of the Community Leaders raised questions about their volunteer status. CLs were often required to complete an extensive three-month training program before starting and report weekly hours to superiors. In 1999, two former volunteers filed a class action lawsuit against AOL claiming the program required individuals to perform tasks of employees without proper compensation. The Department of Labor ended an investigation into the program in 2001, but the lawsuit continued to slowly move forward causing drastic changes at America Online. Nearly all hosts had lost content-editing rights and no longer provided customer service or technical support by the end of 2000. The scaling back of these responsibilities, mixed with market pressures, lead to the termination of many Community Leader positions between 2001 and 2002. This caused the closure or loss of sponsorship for most role-playing avenues by early 2003.
The Community Leader program was closed in May 2005. In February 2008, the original lawsuit filed nine years earlier was granted class-action status and a request for dismissal by AOL was denied. The company was ordered to provide contact information for nearly fourteen thousand individuals who had volunteered as part of the program. In 2010, a settlement was reached and the case was closed. A payout of over fifteen million dollars was issued.