The Latest Installment of AOHell

As a former AOL employee and contractor, people are asking me about this article, in which someone who was paid for cranking out content on one of AOL’s sites kvetches about how awful it was. My answer is that I find it interesting. When I was at AOL, one of my largest conflicts with my boss was not that he didn’t care what I wrote as long as it was SEO-optimized, but that when I was starting a column for the company, he was so concerned about getting the initial column “just right” that I eventually had to tell him to either write it himself or let it run, because his vague comments about “it’s not quite there” weren’t actually helpful. So in my case, my bosses were looking for quality, even if they didn’t always know how to express it. This was more than a dozen years ago, however; I was laid off in 1998.

Later on, when I worked for AOL as an independent contractor, there was still an emphasis on quality; at one point when I was writing newsletters I was called onto the carpet (correctly) for allowing too many copy errors, and praised when I made a nice turn of phrase or otherwise committed decent writing. I stopped working for AOL entirely, either as an employee or contractor, at the end of 2007, when it wanted to switch my compensation at their AOL Journals area to a “per post” model from a general quasi-salaried position. That was the first time I got the sense it was wanting quantity over quality, and while I have no problem with quantity, I didn’t think AOL was going to go about it the right way, and besides, what they were wanting to pay for quantity wasn’t enough for me.

That AOL is going after eyeballs is not particularly news to me; AOL has always done what it thinks it needs to in order to maximize its revenue. When I started at AOL it was still on its “per hour” revenue model, so the plan was to develop content that made people stick around and read. When it switched to “all you can eat,” then the plan was to develop content that got people to click pages and rack up ad impressions. AOL is not nor has ever been the only organization using content of whatever quality to drive their business model, so I’m not going to criticize it for that. I will say that it’s entirely possible to drive a business model with content that doesn’t suck. But doing that takes a fair amount of work and also people who actually care about quality of the product. It doesn’t sound like this fellow was at AOL in an era where either was a priority.

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