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.

19 Comments on “The Latest Installment of AOHell”

  1. John
    We are glad that you left AOoffal… and NOW it becomes clear why Whatever is as good as it is .

    Keep it going. and
    Thanks for the impressions that you leave on our minds.

  2. A few months ago, I answered a Craigslist ad for freelance writers, thinking it would be a good way for this SAHM to get her foot in the door of writing for pay. When the company responded and explained what I would be doing and how I would be paid, I thought, “OH! You’re the guys who make the internet SUCK.” I never replied back.

  3. I’m finding it hard to work up any sympathy for this guy. I seriously dislike his use of the word “slave”, for one thing. It’s totally inappropriate in the context – metaphor or not.
    For another, he doesn’t say exactly what made him NOT QUIT other than his desire to have a writing gig, any writing gig, and to put up with anything to keep it. He sounds like some of the desperate writers that you try to caution about scam artists who take advantage of their desire to see their words in print.
    How old was he when he got the job, 15? He comes across as naive (saying how grateful he was). He also doesn’t really disclose what year this took place (as you mention, AOL had different “eras” – like most companies do – with vastly different priorities each era)

    I’m definitely not condoning whatever pressure cooker atmosphere AOL was encouraging, but really – how hard is it to write a “trash one of your employers” article? I’m just not impressed with his sob story. Maybe I’m too cynical.

  4. CTJen @2 – You might want to pick up STARVE BETTER by Nick Mamatas; lots of advice for getting in the door on paid writing while avoiding scamsters.

    Interesting article, except for the whining where we’re supposed to feel sorry for him missing sleep in between sitting around in his pajamas at home eating take-out.

  5. TomG @3

    He says “It’s been five months since my firing”. So it’s the current era of AOL.

  6. AOL. It’s like referencing the horse-and-buggy days. They’re internet connection programs were a tumor that wrapped itself around your computer’s spine: unremoveable. Gah!

  7. There’s a period of several years where AOL particularly aggravated me as a user and reader. I’d click a headline which interested me, or seemed mildly amusing, only to get dropped into an article which had scant little to do with anything the headline suggested. I kept thinking somebody made a mistake. Now I realize it was a mistake, but not the kind I thought. After repeat offenses I stopped my AOL clickin’ and headed over to Google where I could find actual articles on topics that interested me. Whatever algorithm Google used to display search results, meant that with minimal sifting, I usually found what I wanted and didn’t regret clicking a thing or two. Still seems to be that way for the most part. I try to stick with content providers who provide actual content. AOL stopped understanding the long-term value of investing in quality. They gained a few quick clicks and at the expense of infinite future ones. Pity. There were so many incredibly talented folks at AOL, but, sadly, the ones running it seemed to be really good at only one thing–running it into the ground.

  8. 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.

    Aaargh… doesn’t that drive you nuts – especially if you’re not sure it’s “there” yourself. A good editor (and I think it would be fair to say Tor has some of the best in show) will have specific concerns you can do something with.

  9. Well, I thought it was perfectly fine myself. I think he was just being fiddly. But it’s so long ago now I can’t remember what he wrote or if in the final analysis he was correct.

  10. Seems to me that this stems pretty directly from bad MBA-style management, with singular focus on the bottom line and little care for the process that goes into the bottom line.

  11. I worked with Oliver over at TV Squad (the blog’s name before it became AOL TV) and thought you folks might like to read my take on what happened:

    I was there for 6 years (in fact, I used to be editor of the site). It was quite great “back in the day,” and John’s right, you actually *can* make a blog with great writing and content work as a business model. We did it for years, and then AOL came along and…

    Well, you know the rest.

  12. Farley @7: The frustrating thing was, there was a brief window of time when their product actually served a purpose. It was in the days when PC operating systems didn’t ship with a TCP/IP stack, the associated dialup software, or any Internet applications as standard equipment. You could get all that stuff off the Internet itself, but that just raised a chicken-and-egg problem. How to get started? If you didn’t have a technically astute friend or a local BBS or proto-ISP to give you a disk with a package of this stuff, you could instead get a one-stop solution from AOL, just by using one of those disks or CDs they’d throw at you six times a week.

    And then you could use AOL as a means of downloading all the software you needed to connect to the Internet without AOL. But then, of course, you were presented with the problem of how to disentangle yourself from AOL, which I believe was eventually the subject of a class-action suit.

  13. I think that there are two perspectives on this – it’s the marketing department perspective where all is about sales, and anything that people talks about – bad or good still makes you more known.

    Then there is the engineer perspective – engineers always strive for perfection. It may of course end up in the perfect solution for that engineer but a bad solution for someone else. (Like Ergonomic Scissors – works very fine for the right handed people but damn you if you are left handed.)

    I have also realized that in a system – if it works too well then the amount of engineers that are needed to support it may be too few, which means that the knowledge of the system eventually dries up. Maybe we do need all those systems with some pet flaws and bugs that we all have gotten used to from our favorite software dealers? It’s easily translated to your own backyard – if you have problems with your sewage drain about once per year then you can dig it up and fix it in your sleep, and have it fixed the same day, but if you don’t have a clue it will take a week.

    In a way this also concerns us as customers. If we buy something that’s simple and works as a charm it may be perfect until the day something changes – like an internet router that just works and suddenly the ISP changes something and we need support, then we realize that there is no support since nobody has ever needed support on that device.

    Thank you for allowing me to rant a bit from the perspective of an engineer.

  14. I don’t think the author is whining. Looks to me like he’s telling us what’s going on at AOL, and nothing more.

  15. He may have a class action lawsuit. AOL (like other companies) are abusing the independent contractor rules from the IRS. They basically paid him as a 1099. So he was considered self employed. They paid him hourly up to 40 hours/week, but did not pay him for the rest. They do this so if you get sick and miss a few days, you don’t get paid for that. However, there are rules behind hiring someone as a self employed person and treating them like an employee. Note he probably hasn’t done his taxes yet. He is going to owe double social security and double medicare taxes since he is considered self employed. He also probably didn’t even make $35,000/year. Typically when an hourly contractor is quoted a yearly salary it is based on being paid for 2080 hours/year (even if you work 2500-3000. Note, they don’t usually pay you for holidays or if your out sick. So he probably made about $31-32k with higher taxes. They are treating people like employees, but paying them like indendent contractors. People won’t sign up to sue if they still work there (since they will be fired immediately), but with a large number of layoffs, there are alot of potential people to sign on to this. The fact that he can’t even get unemployment is because AOL did not pay unemployment on him and self employed people are not elligible for unemployment.

    Since there are apparently alot of people involved, a law firm could potentially make alot of money suing AOL. This happens quite a bit. There was a New York Times article a few years ago about delivery drivers at Fed-Ex who were “self employed”. They had to buy their own truck. If it broke down, they paid to repair it AND did not get paid. One of them got sick and lost her route since they gave it to someone else. Note she was still on the hook for a useless truck that said Federal Express on the side.

    I live in Northern Virginia and know large numbers of layoffs that AOL has had. They do staff up, and then staff down. Lets try this and if it doesn’t work fire everyone. Or lets bring lots of people, work them to death with the intent of firing 50% of them. I used to report to a guy who outsourced a large number of programming jobs to India. They had to bring in an india outsourcing company for onsite jobs. To justify firing most of the Americans, they slightly changed the job req, to “technically”, make them unqualified. Then replaced them with lowered paid visa holders and then outsourced alot of the jobs to India. If you think this is a right wing thinger. Think again. The guy is left of Barrack Obama politically and had no problem doing this at all.

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