: Code 2.0

America Online

America Online

America Online (AOL) is an online service provider by far the largest ISP in the world[13] with some 12 million subscribers in 1998 and 27 million today.[14] But despite having the population of New York and New Jersey combined, AOL still describes itself as a community. A large community perhaps, but a community nonetheless.

This community has a constitution not in the sense of a written document (though there is that as well), but in the sense of a way of life for those who live there. Its founding vision was that community would make this place sing. So from its start, AOLs emphasis has been on enabling people to interact, through chat, bulletin boards, and e-mail. (Today, AOL hosts the exchange of more messages daily than does the U.S. Post Office.[15]) Earlier providers, obsessed with providing content or advertising, limited or ignored the possibilities for interaction and exchange, but AOL saw interaction as the stuff that makes cyberspace different. It built itself on building a community and establishing itself as a place where people could say what they wanted.[16]

This interaction is governed by the rules of the place. Some of these rules are formal, others customary. Among the formal are express terms to which every member subscribes upon joining AOL. These terms regulate a wide range of behaviors in this space, including the behavior of AOL members anywhere on the Internet.[17]

Increasingly, these rules have become controversial. AOL policies have been called Big Brother practices. Arguments that get heated produce exchanges that are rude. But rudeness, or offensiveness, is not permitted in AOLs community. When these exchanges are expunged, claims of censorship arise.[18]

My aim here, however, is not to criticize these rules of netiquette. AOL also has other rules that regulate AOL members rules expressed not in contracts but rather through the very architectures of the space. These rules are the most important part of AOLs constitution, but they are probably the part considered last when we think about what regulates behavior in this cyber-place.

Consider some examples:

For most of AOLs life,[19] as a member of AOL you could be any one of five people. This was just one amazing feature of the space. When you started an account on AOL, you had the right to establish up to five identities, through five different screen names that in effect establish five different accounts. Some users, of course, used the five screen names to give other family members access to AOL. But not everyone used an AOL account like this. Think about the single woman, signing up for her first AOL account. AOL gave her up to five identities that she can define as she wishes five different personae she can use in cyberspace.

What does that mean? A screen name is just a label for identifying who you are when you are on the system. It need not (indeed, often cannot) be your own name. If your screen name is StrayCat, then people can reach you by sending e-mail to straycat@aol.com. If you are online, people can try to talk to you by paging StrayCat on the AOL system; a dialogue would then appear on your screen asking whether you want to talk to the person who paged you. If you enter a chat room, the list of residents there will add you as StrayCat.

But who is StrayCat? Here is a second dimension of control. StrayCat is who StrayCat says she is. She can choose to define herself as no one at all. If she chooses to place a description of herself in the members directory, that description can be as complete or incomplete as she wishes. It can be true or false, explicit or vague, inviting or not. A member stumbling across StrayCat, then, in a chat room set up for stamp collectors could get her profile and read that StrayCat lives in Cleveland and is single and female. What happens next is anyones guess.

Yet this need only be one of StrayCats five identities. Lets say there is a different persona that StrayCat likes to have when she wanders through chat rooms. She can then select another screen name and define it in the directory as she wishes. Perhaps when StrayCat is having a serious discussion in a newsgroup or political list she prefers to speak as herself. She could then select a screen name close to her own name and define it according to who she really is. At other times StrayCat may like to pretend to be a man engaging in virtual cross-dressing and all that might bring with it. One of her screen names could then be a mans. And so on. The point is the multiplicity that AOL allows, and the freedom this multiplicity permits.

No one except StrayCat needs to know which screen names are hers. She is not required to publish the full list of her identities, and no one can find out who she is (unless she breaks the rules). (After revealing to the U.S. Navy the name of one of its members so that the Navy could prosecute the person for being a homosexual, AOL adopted a very strict privacy policy that promises never to allow a similar transgression to happen again.)[20]

So in AOL you were given a fantastic power of pseudonymity that the code writers of real space simply do not give. You could, of course, try in real space to live the same range of multiple lives, and to the extent that these lives are not incompatible or inconsistent, you could quite often get away with it. For instance, you could be a Cubs fan during the summer and an opera buff during the winter. But unless you take extraordinary steps to hide your identity, in real space you are always tied back to you. You cannot simply define a different character; you must make it, and more important (and difficult), you must sustain its separation from your original identity.

That is a first feature of the constitution of AOL a feature constituted by its code. A second is tied to speech what you can say, and where.

Within the limits of decency, and so long as you are in the proper place, you can say what you want on AOL. But beyond these limits, speech on AOL is constrained in a more interesting way: not by rules, but by the character of the potential audience. There are places in AOL where people can gather; there are places where people can go and read messages posted by others. But there is no space where everyone gathers at one time, or even a space that everyone must sooner or later pass through. There is no public space where you could address all members of AOL. There is no town hall or town meeting where people can complain in public and have their complaints heard by others. There is no space large enough for citizens to create a riot. The owners of AOL, however, can speak to all. Steve Case, the founder of AOL, used to write chatty letters to the members as the communitys town mayor.[21] Case left AOL in 2005, and apparently no one has stepped into his speaker shoes. AOL does still advertise to all its members and can send everyone an e-mail, but only the owners and those they authorize can do so. The rest of the members of AOL can speak to crowds only where they notice a crowd and never to a crowd greater than thirty-six (up from twenty-three when the first edition of this book was published).

This is another feature of the constitution of the space that AOL is, and it too is defined by code. That only twenty-three people can be in a chat room at once is a choice of the code engineers. While their reasons could be many, the effect is clear. One cant imagine easily exciting members of AOL into public action, such as picketing the latest pricing policy. There are places to go to complain, but you have to take the trouble to go there yourself. There is no place where members can complain en masse.

Real space is different in this respect. Much of free speech law is devoted to preserving spaces where dissent can occur spaces that can be noticed, and must be confronted, by nondissenting citizens.[22] In real space there are places where people can gather, places where they can leaflet. People have a right to the sidewalks, public streets, and other traditional public forums. They may go there and talk about issues of public import or otherwise say whatever they want. Constitutional law in real space protects the right of the passionate and the weird to get in the face of the rest. But no such design is built into AOL.[23] As Dawn Nunziato writes,

AOL explains in its Community Guidelines that like any city, we take pride in and are protective of our community. Unlike any other city, however, AOL enjoys the unfettered discretion to censor constitutionally-protected speech in its discussion forums and other online spaces, including vulgar language (which, it warns, is no more appropriate online than it would be at Thanksgiving dinner), crude conversations about sex, and discussions about . . . illegal drug abuse that imply it is acceptable.[24]

This is not to romanticize the power of real-space public forums. (Nor is it to pick on AOL: As Nunziato continues, users seeking stronger protection for their expression might turn to an ISP other than AOL. They will find, however, similar restrictions on speech imposed by many other major ISPs.[25]) We have become such an apolitical society that if you actually exercised this constitutionally protected right, people would think you were a nut. If you stood on a street corner and attacked the latest tax proposal in Congress, your friends would be likely to worry and not about the tax proposal. There are exceptions events can make salient the need for protest but in the main, though real space has fewer controls through code on who can speak where, it has many more controls through norms on what people can say where. Perhaps in the end real space is much like AOL the effective space for public speech is limited and often unimportant. That may well be. But my aim here is to identify the feature and to isolate what is responsible for it. And once again, it turns out to be a feature built into the code.

A third feature of AOLs constitution also comes from its code. This is traceability. While members are within the exclusive AOL content area (in other words, when theyre not using AOL as a gateway to the Internet), AOL can (and no doubt does) trace your activities and collect information about them. What files you download, what areas you frequent, who your buddies are all this is available to AOL. These data are extremely valuable; they help AOL structure its space to fit customer demand. But gaining the ability to collect these data required a design decision. This decision too was part of the constitution that is AOL again, a part constituted by its code. It is a decision that gives some but not others the power to watch.

AOL is not exclusive in this enabling capacity. It shares the power. One wonderful feature of the online space is something called buddy lists. Add someone to your buddy list, and when he comes online you hear the sound of a creaking door and are notified that he is online. (The buddy need not know he is being watched, though he can, if he knows, block the watching.) If that person goes into a chat area and you locate him, you will be told in what chat area he is. This power, given to ordinary users, can have complicated consequences. (Imagine sitting at work with your buddy feature turned on, watching your spouse come online, enter a chat area, and you get the point.) This ability to monitor is built into the space. Individuals can turn it off, at least for a single watcher, but only if they know about it and think to change it.

Consider one final feature of the constitution of AOL, closely linked to the last: commerce. In AOL you can buy things. You can buy things and download them, or buy things and have them sent to your home. When you buy, you buy with a screen name, and when you buy with a screen name, AOL knows (even if no one else does) just who you are. It knows who you are, it knows where you live in real space, and most important, it knows your credit card number and the security it provides.

AOL knows who you are this is a feature of its design. All your behavior on AOL is watched; all of it is monitored and tracked back to you as a user. AOL promises not to collect data about you individually, but it certainly collects data about you as part of a collective. And with this collective, and the link it provides back to you, AOL is a space that can better, and more efficiently, sell to you.

These four features mark AOL space as different from other places in cyberspace. It is easier for AOL to identify who you are, and harder for individuals to find out who you are; easier for AOL to speak to all its citizens as it wishes, and harder for dissidents to organize against AOLs views about how things ought to be; easier for AOL to market, and harder for individuals to hide. AOL is a different normative world; it can create this different world because it is in control of the architecture of that world. Members in that space face, in a sense, a different set of laws of nature; AOL makes those laws.

Again, my aim is not to criticize the creation of this world or to say that it is improper. No doubt AOL makes promises to its members that are designed to allay some of the concern that this control creates, and no doubt if the place became oppressive, the market would provide plenty of alternatives.

Rather my objective is to impart a sense of what makes AOL the way it is. It is not just written rules; it is not just custom; it is not just the supply and demand of a knowing consuming public. What makes AOL is in large part the structure of the space. You enter AOL and you find it to be a certain universe. This space is constituted by its code. You can resist this code you can resist how you find it, just as you can resist cold weather by putting on a sweater. But you are not going to change how it is. You do not have the power to change AOLs code, and there is no place where you could rally AOL members to force AOL to change the code. You live life in AOL subject to its terms; if you do not like them, you go elsewhere.

These features of the AOL space have important implications for how it is regulated. Imagine there is a problem on AOL that AOL wants to stop. It wants to prevent or at least control a certain behavior. What tools does AOL have?

First, it has all the tools that any club, fraternity, or community might have. It can announce rules for its members (and AOL certainly does). Or it can try to stigmatize the behavior, to use the norms of the community to help regulate the problem. This AOL does as well. Alternatively, if the problem comes from the overuse of a particular resource, then the managers at AOL can price that resource differently by exacting a tax to reduce its usage or a different price for those who use it too much.

But AOL has something more at hand. If AOL does not like a certain behavior, then in at least some cases it can regulate that behavior by changing its architecture. If AOL is trying to control indecent language, it can write routines that monitor language usage; if there is improper mixing between adults and kids, AOL can track who is talking to whom; if there is a virus problem caused by people uploading infected files, it can run the files automatically through virus checkers; if there is stalking or harassing or threatening behavior, AOL can block the connection between any two individuals.

In short, AOL can deal with certain types of problems by changing its code. Because the universe that AOL members know (while in AOL) is defined by this code, AOL can use the code to regulate its members.

Think a bit about the power I am describing and again, I am not complaining or criticizing or questioning this power, only describing it. As you move through this space that AOL defines entering a chat area, posting a message to a bulletin board, entering a discussion space, sending instant-messages to another person, watching or following other people, uploading or downloading files from sites, turning to certain channels and reading certain articles, or obsessively paging through a space looking for pictures of a certain actor or actress as you do any of these things, AOL is, in an important sense, there. It is as if the system gives you a space suit that you use to navigate the space but that simultaneously monitors your every move.

In principle, the potential for control is extraordinary. Imagine AOL slowing the response time for a certain kind of service it wants to discourage, or channeling the surfer through ads that it wants customers to see, or identifying patterns of behavior that its monitors would watch, based on the fear that people with patterns like X are typically dangerous to people of type Y. I do not think AOL engages in activities like these, and I am not saying that there would be anything wrong if it did. But it is important to note that the potential for control in this community is unlimited not in the sense that AOL could make life miserable (since people would then leave), but in the sense that it has a regulatory tool that others, in both real space and other cyberspaces, do not. Its power is, of course, checked by the market, but it has a tool of control that others in the market, but outside cyberspace, do not have.

In principle, then, AOL must choose. Every time AOL decides that it wants to regulate a certain kind of behavior, it must select from among at least four modalities rules, norms, prices, or architecture. And when selecting one of these four modalities, selecting architecture as a regulator will often make the most sense.


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