As this story about the tragic death of Princess Diana illustrates, online trolling did not begin with Facebook and Twitter. It also hints at some of the ways a wired global community was changing journalism.
Princess Di Online 9/11/1997
by H.B. Koplowitz
The mainstream media consensus is that the whole world is mourning the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But on the unfiltered Internet, emotions amongst the cyber commoners are decidedly mixed. Equal venom is being spewed at the “stalkarazzi” and the “people’s princess,” and, as always, at each other.
Princess Di and her beau, Dodi Fayed, died early Sunday morning [Aug. 31, 1997] in Paris (Saturday night in Los Angeles). Fleeing from biker paparazzi, their Mercedes crashed while traveling in excess of 100 miles an hour through a Paris tunnel beneath the Seine. Dodi, 41, and the driver, who was legally drunk, were killed instantly. Diana, 36, was pronounced dead about 4 a.m. Sunday, Paris time.
Some, especially in Europe, first heard about the tragedy on the Internet, from American computer users monitoring TV news reports. An Internet friend visiting Paris said her first awareness that Princess Di was dead was at 6 a.m. local time Sunday morning, when she logged onto her computer and entered a chat room on America Online.
“They asked me what they were saying in France and I did not know what they were talking about,” she recounted. “So they told me what happened. And when I checked the French news, the titles on AOL, there was still nothing about it.”
When big news breaks, chat rooms become like talk radio, only without the radio and without the talk show host. Potshots fly in all directions, with special attention given to sexual innuendo. Typical comments from the AOL chat room “Papparatzi Killed Di” Monday evening included:
MastrBaitz: she knew what the price was when she married prince bozo
BADBOY6552: IWILL PRAY FOR DIANA AND KEEP IN MY HEART ALL SHE HAS DONE FOR SO MANY
EL P0RK: he was spanking himself in the front seat as Di was spanking her man’s meat in the back
MastrBaitz: i think the british intelligence servces probably killed her
SueKewpie: holy smokes, I canot believe the drivel that is filtering thru here. I just can’t…
Jkren: god bles the ignore button
Usenet newsgroups also lit up with messages, not unlike these posted in alt.talk.royalty:
“We want to know
We create an industry To pry and expose We build them up We take them down.
Today I cry. And tommorow I will buy The newsprint that killed her. God help me. And you… — mrblonde”
“Diana and Dodi’s tragic death was caused by the poor judgement of a drunk driver. They were being followed with cameras, not guns. It is a horrible, horrible accident that should never have happened. If you want to blame something, blame foolish decisions and drunken driving. Beverly”
“Call her Lady, call her Princess, call her whatever you like. Diana was Queen in our hearts!”
“Such pious nonsense. She represented nothing and nobody. She was a loose cannon addicted to high living and media attention.”
Trying to start an urban legend, one message writer claimed Buckingham Palace had given permission to sell bone china gilded plates engraved with photos of the crash.
Charlene Vickers of Yellowknife, NWT, announced a memorial Web page , along with a petition to create a permanent memorial for Diana: “It occurred to me that many late members of the Family have had monuments built to their memories in London and at Windsor. I feel that Diana, Princess of Wales, deserves a similar monument, and I am asking you to sign a petition to that effect.”
The official British Monarchy home page has set up an area for people to leave their written condolences, but it is hard to access now because so many people are trying to get in.
However, the Unofficial British Royal Family Pages has current information on the accident and aftermath, along with excellent links to other royal Web sites, and a Diana Memorial Page where people can leave condolences. Most of these comments have been more respectful, such as this one from Shannon Tod of Australia:
“Princess Diana, a true legend in my eyes. U are an inspiration to me and a best friend to the world. I will always remember your courage, patience, and mostly love to other people that u showed. Nothing could ever replace the true and wonderful you that I have known. U will live in me forever, and the light that you shone upon this world will always remain. I luv you, Sweet Princess. @}—>—‘— “
Nowadays we take for granted the instant messaging software on our smartphones that enables us to avoid talking to each other. The technology has been around since the creation of the internet, but it wasn’t until America Online introduced AOL Instant Messenger in 1997 that it caught on. A press release from a company called Excite prompted me to do my fourth column on the emerging technology, which I subjected to Freudian analysis. (AIM bit the dust on Dec. 15, 2017.)
As I write this column, I am having a private online conversation with a friend. Only I’m not signed on to America Online or in some Web-based chat room. Rather, I am using a simple, free, stand-alone instant messaging software application, the latest conspiracy by the computer industrial complex to turn us all into cybersluts.
Instant messaging (IM) is like a cross between a phone call and a letter. Internet users can communicate with each other instantly and privately, like a phone call, but in written messages on a computer screen, similar to a letter, and with no long-distance charges. The software also lets you know when your friends are online and able to cyberchat.
Denizens of America Online’s chat rooms are already familiar with both features, which AOL calls Instant Messages and Buddy Lists. What is new is that AOL and other companies are making IM technology available to everyone on the Internet. What is amazing is that the preferred mode of communication for cybersex is now being touted as The Next Big Thing in business communications.
Instant messaging is going to revolutionize computer communications. By enabling computer users to communicate with each other in real time, it adds a human dimension to the online experience. If you are not a subscriber to America Online, but are on the Internet, you must get IM software and make sure all your Internet friends have it as well.
About a half dozen companies have come out with instant messaging software. In a recent review by PC Magazine, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) came in dead last. Although it has been released to the public, AIM is still in the testing phase. But AIM has one thing its competitors lack, i.e., 8 million America Online subscribers to communicate with.
Thus, even though I installed a competing software program, the Personal Access List (PAL) by Excite, I couldn’t use it because I didn’t know anyone else registered with PAL. After installing AIM, however, I had a gas contacting my friends on America Online while I was using my Earthlink account and not logged onto AOL.
Easy to install and easy to use, AIM doesn’t take up a lot of memory, so at the same time I was sending instant messages I could surf the Web or run off-line applications like word processing and spreadsheets. I could also message Web site addresses that my friends could click on and their Web browser would take them to those sites.
In addition to cyberchat and cybersex, instant messaging has many practical and business applications. “AOL Instant Messenger improves productivity, helping colleagues get in touch quickly as they exchange important information,” noted David Gang, AOL senior vice president of Product Marketing.
Eric Jorgensen, product manager with Excite, expressed similar sentiments. “There is a huge market with affiliated groups, and one obvious group is businesses.”
One advantage to PAL is you can register under your existing e-mail name, making it easier for friends to find you, while AIM requires you to create a new screen name. Excite also hopes using e-mail addresses frees instant messaging from its sordid association with chat rooms and cybersex.
Jorgensen said Excite plans to keep PAL free to consumers, with advertisers paying for the service. Excite also owns Webcrawler, the popular Internet search engine, which displays ads depending on which keywords you type in. To register for PAL, consumers must provide demographic information including zip code, gender and age, which advertisers can use to place demographically targeted ads onto the PAL screens.
The final version of AOL’s Instant Messenger also will have ads. As for whether America Online plans to ever charge for the service, Gang said rather cryptically that there are no plans “at this time.”
The bottom line is that if you subscribe to America Online you already have instant messaging. If you don’t use AOL, but are on the Internet and have other friends on the Internet, you – and they – should get IM software. For now, America Online’s AIM is the only game in town. It is available at the AOL Web site <aol.com>. If you can’t bring yourself to use an AOL product, you can get Excite’s PAL from its Web site <excite.com>. Just remember you have to get your Internet friends to use the same software.
“Lost in Cyberspace” is the name I gave my first website, where I posted columns I wrote for a Los Angeles weekly between 1997 and 2001. The newspaper wanted me to review advertisers’ websites, but I turned the essays into ruminations on cyberspace, pop culture and current events. Today, many of the websites I reviewed don’t exist, along with the people, companies, technologies, hardware, software, and jargon I wrote about. Outdated as many of my observations are, the columns chronicle a moment in time, before Google, Amazon and Facebook, and before smartphones, broadband and flat screens, when the internet was new and a Wild West ethos prevailed.
Mea culpa: In my mid 40s and welcoming a midlife crisis, in 1996 I left my stultifying state job in Springfield, Illinois, and moved to Los Angeles, the city of second chances. I tried to become a freelance writer, and one of my first gigs was writing CD-ROM reviews for a free weekly in Burbank called Entertainment Today. This was a cheeky thing to do because I’d never played a computer game, and the only thing I knew about CD-ROMs was that my computer didn’t have a CD-ROM drive, so to write the reviews, for which I was paid $15 apiece, I would need to buy a $2,000 computer.
Multimedia reviews evolved into “Cyber Nation,” a column on another subject I was just as ignorant of — the Internet. But truth be told, one corner of cyberspace I did have some familiarity with — and coincidentally chose for my first column — was the primordial chat rooms of America Online, which was the Facebook of its time. Called the “People Connection,” users could join so-called chat rooms of a dozen or so people who would congregate based on age, hobbies, occupations, and, significantly, romantic interests.
Unlike a modern video conference or Zoom meeting, with audio and video, AOL chat rooms were text only, affording the privacy to pretend to be someone else — or to be one’s true self — and to find others who shared similar proclivities. Suddenly, people with deviant desires had a way to anonymously find each other and exchange text messages exploring mutual interests in, e.g., BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism), “gay and lesbian,” daddy-daughter roleplay, and other taboo inclinations. After hooking up in a chat room, AOL subscribers could “go private,” which meant one-on-one texting, and sometimes sexting, except without photos (which required e-mail).
While it seems downright prim, compared to the kinds of sexual interactions that take place online today, people texting erotic fantasies to each other, sometimes while mutually masturbating, was called cybersex. And people who spent too much time online having cybersex (or just surfing the web) were known as cybersluts. Just as Facebook has been accused of poisoning society by allowing “fake news” and hate speech to proliferate, AOL had unwittingly spawned a virtual sexual revolution that threatened to disrupt the social order.
Except for imagination, cybersex did not engage any of the five senses, so it was unclear if it constituted cheating. The problem was that cybersex sometimes led to phone sex, which sometimes led to real sex, which sometimes led to new relationships, but also to broken relationships and broken marriages, not to mention sexual assaults, pedophilia, prostitution and financial exploitation.
The reason I knew about AOL chat rooms was because, for a brief period of my life, I was a certified cyberslut. In fact, it was in the chat rooms of America Online that I met and fell in love with the Los Angeles woman I had left Springfield for and was living with when I wrote my first Cyber Nation column. (We remain best friends.) During our cyber courtship, our AOL bills shot up from twenty bucks to hundreds of dollars a month. Then AOL decided to allow unlimited usage for a set price, and the popularity of AOL soared, nearly crashing the internet.
The premise of my column was that sex had not merely found its way onto the internet, but was playing a pioneering role in commercializing and popularizing new technologies, from VCRs to streaming video and e-commerce. But the folks at family friendly AOL weren’t about to agree that sex had played a role in the company’s success, and by extension, the internet itself.
Cybersex and America Online 8/14/1997
by H.B. Koplowitz
When America Online began offering a flat fee for unlimited use a year ago, it seemed like a win-win-win situation. Subscribers would pay less for unlimited service, advertisers would gain millions more online customers, and AOL would reap the profits. But there was one factor the company overlooked: Cybersex.
Cybersex is nerdspeak for something that goes on in AOL’s People Connection, or “chat rooms,” where users flirt in real time by typing sometimes explicit messages to each other. While AOL provides some 200 services, from stock quotes to computer games, the People Connection may be the company’s killer app. Chat is the one service AOL does better than anyone else, and for those who are into cybersex, it is highly addictive.
AOL spokesperson Wendy Goldberg dismisses cybersex as a non-factor in AOL’s popularity, or in the massive system overload that occurred when the company switched to a flat rate. AOL expected usage to increase by 50 percent as a result of the flat rate. Instead, it doubled, in all areas, Goldberg said. She said AOL is the world’s largest on-line service provider not because of cybersex, but because it is the easiest way to get on the Internet.
Then again, she said AOL users are on the Web only 20 percent of the time, compared to 80 percent spent in AOL proprietary areas, including 25 percent in the 14,000 chat rooms of the People Connection.
PCMeter, an independent measurer of Internet use, found in April that the most-used area of the entire Internet was AOL e-mail, which transmits 15 million messages a day. However, the next highest rated AOL services were Buddy Lists (5th) and Instant Messages (6th), both chat features. The People Connection ranked 12th, compared to Computing (8th), Entertainment (13th), Marketplace (16th), Games (21st) and Today’s News (22nd).
It is easy to understand why AOL would downplay chat. In the culture of the Internet, chat is at the bottom of the hierarchy of services such as e-mail, the Web and newsgroups. Also, AOL’s chat rooms have generated a lot of controversy over obscenity, censorship, pedophiles, infidelity, even homicide.
But in going to a flat rate, AOL turned a cash cow into a loss leader, while creating a virtual modem gridlock, resulting in busy signals and pissed-off subscribers. Membership skyrocketed from 6 million before the flat rate to more than 8.5 million today. At one point 8 million AOL members were trying to dial in on only 200,000 modems, a ratio of 40 subscribers per modem, when a 12:1 ratio is considered optimal.
For cybersluts, many of whom who had a monthly AOL Jones in the hundreds of dollars, it was like telling addicts they could have all the heroin they wanted for $20 a month, then cutting the supply. Talk about panic in Needle Park!
In response, AOL invested $350 million in system upgrades. It invested millions more in reimbursing customers who sued for loss of service. Goldberg said AOL considers 20 subscribers per modem sufficient, and that “we’re getting there.”
According to Inverse Network Technology, a Santa Clara, Calif., company that rates service providers, customers trying to log on to AOL in July during peak evening hours were unsuccessful about a third of the time. Although better than the dismal 80 percent call failure rate INT found earlier this year, AOL is still a long way from the industry average of a 9.5 percent failure rate.
Ironically, if AOL was trying to put competing Internet service providers out of business by charging the same price while providing more services, the impact has been just the opposite. Because AOL’s direct lines are so often busy, more members are using the smaller ISPs to get on AOL. However, these smaller ISPs now face the same problem as AOL. The more their customers lurk in AOL’s chat rooms, the more their resources are strained.
To recoup revenue lost by going to a flat rate, AOL began selling ads that appear in the chat rooms. It also has marketing agreements with a buyers club and a long-distance phone company. But following angry protests, the company shelved a plan to sell members’ phone numbers to telemarketers. Another way AOL can generate revenue is to go to a tiered service, similar to cable TV, charging one price for basic services and an additional fee for “premium” channels. AOL recently began doing that by offering “Premium Games” for $1.99 an hour.
But rather than targeting children who play games, AOL ought to be going after the true bandwidth hogs: cybersluts who play in the adult chat rooms of the People Connection. Charging for cybersex might be harsh medicine for cybersluts. But it is in their own interest, as well as that of AOL and the entire Internet community, for them to slack off instead of jack off.