Emerging Sources of Labor on the Internet:
The Case of America Online Volunteers
In 1995 AOL announced that it would be converting its pricing plan from
an hourly rate that ranged from $3 to $6 an hour to a ﬂat monthly rate of
$15.95. The increase in member subscription was expected to be signiﬁ-
cant, and a wave of concern swept through the large remote-staff volunteer
population, whose duties included monitoring electronic bulletin boards,
hosting chat-rooms, enforcing the Terms of Service agree ment (TOS),
guiding AOL users through the online community, and even creating
content using the AOL’s own program, RAINMAN (Remote Automated
Information Manager), the text scripting language and the publishing tool
that allows remote staffers to update and change content on AOL. Chief
among remote-staff volunteer’s concerns was the initiative to convert
many of the volunteer accounts from overhead accounts, which had access
to tools and privileges that made remote-staff volunteers’ duties on par
with in-house employees, to unbilled or discounted accounts. In a meeting
meant to address the emerging concerns of remote-staff volunteers held
over electronic chat, Bob Marean, a representative for AOL, confronted
over 450 remote-staff volunteers. One of those present described even ts at
the meeting as follows:
[:::] we were all upset [:::] I am even pointing to myself and saying ‘‘Guide
Strike’’. All of a sudden, Guide Strike becomes a reality. As we are talking about
it, we become serious. There were ten [guides] [:::] I drafted a letter encouraging
all guides to strike. Guide USN [the screen name of another guide] was in the
row with us. He had already tendered his resignation and he volunteered to send
the letter. [:::] Nothing happened for a few days. AOL released me from the
guide program. I got a letter when I signed on for a shift and I was given seven
days to delete my screen name [:::]. They never told me why I was ﬁred, just that
I was released from the program.
Other guides involved in the attempted ‘‘strike’’ were let go as well. Some
were told that their behavior during the meeting violate d their TOS
1. Unknown author, interview, ‘‘Former Guide RRP’s Story’’. Available at http://
www.observers.net/guiderrp.html; last accessed November 2002.
IRSH 48 (2003), Supplement, pp. 205–223 DOI: 10.1017/S0020859003001329
2003 Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis
agreement, while others were never given any reasons. Some were allowed
to return but only after mandatory ‘‘behavioral training [:::] and a three to
six month probation’’.
Postindustrialism and the Internet have come together to draw value
from cultural labor produced on the Internet; the case of AOL will show
that management practices seeking to control the work process have
helped deﬁne volunteers as workers. This is the central irony of the
volunteer’s story. In response to the increase in member numbers and a
lone lawsuit ﬁled by ex-volunteer Errol Trobee for back wages, AOL tried
to restructure the remote-staff volunteer organization to gain control over
it, and by so doing AOL positioned some of its volunteers to see
themselves as employees.
This article draws from the sociological
literature that explains the postindustrial shift and situates emergent forms
of work within the technologies of postindustrialism. Historically, this
article situates the AOL volunteers as part of the hobbyists and volunteers
that have traditionally been part of the rise of the information commu-
nication technologies, generally, and the Internet speciﬁcally.
3. It is important to note that this paper discusses two lawsuits for back wages against AOL. The
ﬁrst lawsuit ﬁled by Trobee in 1995 is part of what inﬂuenced AOL to change its relationship
with its volunteers. The second suit was ﬁled by Kelley Hallisey et al. in 1999, and is a class-
action lawsuit following the changes made by AOL to the volunteer organization.
4. Here, it is worth noting that the primary data reviewed for this piece was gathered in the
archives of www.observers.net, an organization founded by a number of ex-volunteers, some of
whom are suing AOL for back wages. This fact poses some problems concerning the primary
data since the archives cannot be cross-referenced against another source. Potentially, this may
bias the data in favor of viewing AOL volunteers as workers. However, since the primary data
present in the Observers website is not generate by AOL volunteers or ex-volunteers alone but
also contains internal documents leaked to the press, interviews with management, chat logs with
management leaked on the Net, and a collection of glossaries that help the user in navigating the
AOL communities, it is possible to generate a thorough picture of the volunteer experience at
AOL from the point of view of management and as well as volunteers. While it is true that this is
a single archive, the fact remains that this is the only public archive that holds records of AOL’s
dealings with its volunteers. Because of ongoing litigation, other potential sources remain
inaccessible. For example, at AOL’s request, the court documents for an ongoing lawsuit ﬁled by
ex-volunteers under the Fair Labor Standards Act remain sealed, and the plaintiffs and
defendants in the case are no longer commenting on the case. Complicating matters further is the
common practice of many members of Internet communities not to use their real names; this,
combined with the gagging order issued by the court, prevents us from knowing the identities of
many of the principle players in this story. Where possible, I have supplemented accounts of
events or analyses of the story of AOL volunteers with corroborating commentary from media
and news sources and an interview I conducted with the lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit
prior to the court’s order. Unfortunately, these limitations are part and parcel of the study of
distributed Internet communities taking shape in recent history. We should note, however, that
media coverage of the events concerning AOL volunteers and management’s commentary, also
reported on by media sources, strongly support the story of AOL volunteers as it evolves in the
archives of www.observers.net, and therefore I remain conﬁdent the these sources can generate a
complete story of the experience of those volunteers who chose to see themselves as employees.
206 Hector Postigo
AOL AND ITS VOLUNTEERS
The ‘‘Guide Strike’’ or ‘‘The Row 800 Incident’’, discussed above,
represents a turn ing point in the relationship between AOL and its
volunteers. Quantum Computer Services, as AOL was known prior to
1989, was founded to provide Internet service to early personal computer
users. AOL negotiated exclusive deals with Commodore Corporation,
Tandy Corporation, and Apple Computers to provide Internet service for
users of the Commodore 64, the Deskmate, and the Apple II respectively.
Subsequently, Quantum changed its name to America Online and
combined all of its online services under the AOL trademark, expanding
its user base to any personal computer user with a modem. When it entered
the Internet-service-provider business, AOL had approxim ately 75,000
users that it had attracted thro ugh its partnership with Apple, Tandy, and
Commodore. By the early 1990s volunteers were an integra l part of AOL’s
community and did much work to establish content and help new
members. In the early days of AOL, the company never speciﬁcally set
out to create a volunteer organization but it welcomed the fact that
the communities could maintain themselves through the work of
The relationship between AOL and its volunteers in the early 1990s had
been established under the inﬂuence of the early Internet community spirit
present in other Internet communities, such as Howard Rhein gold’s
Whole Eart h ’Lectronic Link (WELL)
and the various Usenet groups of
hobbyists and information enthusiasts engaging in what has been
described by some observers as a gift economy of information exchange.
Volunteers that maintain communities on the Internet have been around
since the Internet’s early years; however Netizen’s giving of their time and
energy has its true roots in the hacker history that was an essential
component of the formation of the Internet. The idea of freely giving up
one’s time and knowledge is rooted in the academic, collaborative efforts
that shaped the Internet as a project for the United States Defense
Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Many of the
early Internet and software pioneers believed in working for the pleasure
of tinkering and for the reputation they derived from coming up with
innovative solutions to technical problems. They engaged much of their
work with a passionate zeal that has come to by immortalized in Steven
5. Kara Swisher, AOL.Com: How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads, and Made
Millions in the War for the Web (New York, 1998).
6. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community, available at http://www.rheingold.com/vc/
book/; last accessed November 2002.
7. Richard Barbrook, ‘‘The High-Tech Gift Economy’’, available at http://www.ﬁrstmonday.
org/issues/issue3_12/barbrook/index.html; last accessed November 2002.
207The Case of America Online Volunteers
Levy’s ‘‘hacker ethic’’.
Combined with aspects of 1960s communitarian
ideology, the Internet became infused with a collaborative ethos where
commodiﬁcation and sale were not the primary concern. William Gates Jr,
for example, enraged early Netizens by suggesting that users should pay
for his Altair Basic. As will be discussed later, this was not the only force
inﬂuencing volunteers to contribute their time. By the time AOL started
to become an important player on the Internet, the h ype surrounding
computers and their business potential began to surface. Thus, many
volunteers became involve d with the Internet to acquire the increasingly
valuable computer capital that they hoped would propel them to better
The collaborative ethic that surrounded the early Internet involved both
hardware and software. The work of Paul Cerruzi on the early electronics
hobbyists is especially relevant as an example of work on the hardware side
of hacking. As the microprocessor made its transition to the personal
computer, Ceruzzi suggests, the electronics hobbyist had already set up a
support network that ‘‘neither the minicomputer companies had or the
chip makers could provide’’.
Thus, when personal computer makers
began to release their wares, they had a ‘‘tech-support’’ department already
waiting for them in the form of electronics magazines aimed at providing
technical advice and hardware.
AOL volunteers are direct descendants of the early Internet contribu-
tors that played such a signiﬁcant role in the rise of the Internet and
computing. AOL volunteers in many ways represent those early
collaborators as they have come to confron t the commodiﬁcation of the
Internet. Many AOL volunteers still wax romantic about the early days of
the AOL com munity. According to them, the structure of the AO L
community was relatively simple. Those ﬁrst joiners of AOL were given
‘‘charter member accounts’’ and a reduced service rate for the length of
their stay. The initial work that volunte ers did for AOL was to help other
members learn how to navigate and interact in the community. The
volunteer designations inc luded hosts for those hosting online chat-rooms,
bulletin board monitors, and guides. Guides were the most experienced
8. In Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (Garden City, NY, 1984), Levy
coins the term ‘‘hacker ethic’’, which he describes as composed of the following six tenets: ‘‘(1)
Access to computers – and anything that might teach you about the way the world works –
should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative. (2) All information
should be free. (3) Mistrust Authority – Promote Decentralization. (4) Hackers should be
judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position. (5) You can
create art and beauty on a computer. (6) Computers can change your life for the better.’’
9. For more on this history see Janet Abbate, Inventing the Internet (Cambridge, MA, 2000),
Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet
(New York, 1996), and Douglas Thomas, Hacker Culture (Minneapolis, MN, 2001).
10. Paul Ceruzzi, ‘‘Inventing Personal Computing’’, in Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman
(eds), The Social Shaping of Technology, 2nd edn (Buckingham, 1999), p. 71.
208 Hector Postigo
volunteers, and were the staffers given access to overhead accounts and the
associated tools, emp loyee areas, and the power to enforce the TOS
agreement. Members became volunteers by being recommended by other
volunteers, the training was informal, and they were not generally
organized under any central division within the AOL organization.
Volunteers were given two hours credit time for every hour they
volunteered and were able to ‘‘bank’’ those hours for future use. Many
who became volunteers did so because they had been spending thousands
of dollars on monthly service fees, and exchanging work for time on the
system was a way to keep the bills down.
Still others logged on and
became volunteers because they believed that AOL would provide them
with the needed computer experience to be employable in the emerging
tech-economy or even by AOL. Kelly Hallisey, a volunteer since the early
1990s, recalls explaining to her husband why she stayed online for such
long hours, ‘‘We were having major arguments over it [staying on line] and
I said, ‘You know [:::] this is the way things are going to go, I can see this
turning into a really good paying job.’’
Still others felt compelled to
volunteer by the ‘‘community’’ spirit they encountered on AOL, and thus
many of the accounts of why remote staffers volunteered so many hours
are p ermeated with references to ‘‘online families’’ and go so far as to create
a kinship system based on mentor/mentored relationships. The men tor
would be considere d the mother or father of the mentored volunteer, and
the grandparents were the mentor’s mentors.
This sense of ‘‘family’’ was
not only created as a marketing tactic by AOL but existed and was
propagated among some volunteers in the very early days of the
AOL was wildly successful at marketing its online services, primarily
because of a central vision articulated by Steve Case that crafted the
services as facilitators of communication, not as a sales service, such as the
services of CompuServe, a chief competitor, came to be viewed. Thus, for
the company, online chat, e-mail, and bulletin boards were its main form
of content early on. ‘‘Chat was a compelling form of content that the cash-
poor AOL did not even have to pay for. With thousands of people
chattering away nightly, AOL subscriber s could entertain themselves’’,
wrote a Wall Street reporter when commenting on AOL strategy.
in the name it gave its volunteers, AOL implicitly expressed the value of
the type of relationship it had with early volunteers helping to create
content. They were called ‘‘remote staff’’, with no designation separating
11. Unknown author, interview, ‘‘Interview with Guide Tom D’’, available at www.observers.
net; last accessed November 2002.
12. Hector Postigo, phone interview with Kelly Hallisey, 15 February 1999.
13. Unknown author, interview, ‘‘Reﬂections of a Guide’’, available at http://www.observers.
net/fxguide3.html; last accessed November 2002.
14. Swisher, AOL.Com, p. 94.
209The Case of America Online Volunteers
them from the remote staff that were paid for their services. Some remote-
staff volunteers saw their relationship to AOL as a work relationship even
in this early period, primarily because they felt that in exchange for
services they were getting signiﬁcant saving s in online-provider costs. One
remote-staff volunteer, upon learning that AOL would be con verting to a
ﬂat service fee and that guides might be required to pay a discounted
monthly fee, stated,
Yeah, I’ll guide for $3.95 a month if they only make us work one shift [:::]. I’m a
teacher and it warms the cockles of my heart when I look into a kid’s face and see
that he ‘‘gets it’’ [:::] but I sure as hell wouldn’t keep going to work each day if I
wasn’t getting paid.
By mid-1995 tensions developed between AOL and its volunteers, even
before the switch to a ﬂat rate later that year. The primary causes of
emerging tensions were an already-increasing membership and a lawsuit
ﬁled by an ex-volunteer, both of which culminated in a reorganization of
the volunteer groups. The volunteers had already started voicing their
concerns that they could not handle the volume of members frequenting
chat-rooms and bulletin boards, and that therefore many were going
unattended. To accommodate the rise in members, AOL had taken in
more volunteers to begin ﬁlling in where current volunteers could not.
This irritated current volunteers, because their once small community
began to see large increases in numbers. Some complained that they no
longer recognized those in the volunteer community, and others chafed at
having to admit new members who had not been recommended, as was the
tradition. The element of elitism in this scenario is easy to spot: along with
volunteering came certain powers that admittedly some volunteers were
not willing to share. Additional tension came from AOL’s change in
attitude. Since, at that time, the volunteers were not clearly organized
under any one internal division, AOL now realized that it had little control
over ho w volunteers were representing AOL in the various public forums.
As one manager put it, ‘‘There was this sudden light-bulb moment where
they [management] said, ‘Oh, my God, we have thousands of people out
there acting as our representative, and we don’t even know who they
This prompted AOL to begin restructuring in order to get a handle
on the activities of its volunteers.
An even more important catalyst for reorganization was ex-volunteer
Errol Trobee’s decision to sue AOL for the value of the ‘‘banked’’ hours he
had earned prior to his release. As stated earlier, AOL volunteers, under
the hourly-pricing plan, could earn two free hours for every hour they
15. Chat log, ‘‘Log of Row 800 Incident’’, available at www.observers.net/row800.html; last
accessed November 2002.
16. Robert Grove et al., ‘‘The People vs America Online’’, Forbes ASAP, available at http://
www.forbes.com/asap/2001/0219/060.html; last accessed June 2002.
210 Hector Postigo
volunteered. Trobee demanded less than $600 for his work and claimed
that, under the technical deﬁnition within AOL’s own employee hand-
book, he was an employee. Trobee was able to produce a manual given to
volunteers that proved to the court that he could b e classiﬁed as an
employee. AOL was forced to settle the lawsuit to avoid facing charges of
violating labor law. The lawsuit jarred AOL management, who commis-
sioned an internal analysis of the company’s relationship with its
volunteers. Following the study, an internal memo written by AOL
counsel John Gardiner stated, ‘‘Notw ithstanding AOL’s classiﬁcation and
structure, there are [sufﬁcient] elements of an employer/employee
relationship between AOL and the remote staff to warrant internal review
of the relationship and appropriate action by AOL.’’
three options for AOL: ﬁrst, that AOL restructure the relationship to be
more consistent with that of an independent contractor relationship;
however, Gardiner suggested that such restructuring would compromise
AOL’s ability to control the volunteers. Second, he sugg ested that AOL
completely outsource the remote staff to a third party; howev er, the third
party should not be a proxy or shell, since this would not relieve AOL of
its employer responsibilities. And thirdly, he suggested that AOL hire the
remote staff outright.
Reorganizing the volunteers: what’s in a name?
In retrospect, it is clear that AOL chose two of the three options presented
by Gardiner. As Bob Marean, a manager for AOL, ﬁelded questions about
the new pricing plan for monthly services and the restructuring of the
volunteer relationships, AOL was preparing to hire some of the
volunteers. It also decided to create a proxy organization, AOL
Communities Incorporated (ACI), to handle the volunteers as well as to
serve as a source of temporary employees. The volunteers would no longer
be called remote staff but community leaders and would be housed in the
Community Leader Organization (CLO ) managed by ACI. AOL chose
not to give more control over content and community management to the
volunteers; rather, it placed control over communities and content
production more squarely in the hands of the company. AOL did this in
a number of ways.
Firstly, the dissolution of overhead accounts took away some volun-
teers’ ability to design content for AOL. To many of the volunteers this
was seen as a deskilling process. With access to RAINMAN, volunteers
not only had the ability to change content, but could also attain the kinds
17. John D. Gardiner, ‘‘Summary of Legal Issues and Options Related to Remote Staff’’,
available at www.observers.net/oalmemo.html; last accessed November 2002.
211The Case of America Online Volunteers
of programming skills that they felt made them viable for future
employment. Many suggested that without access to RAINMAN they
essentially became TOSCops (Terms of Service enforcers).
the CLO required that volunteers serve one to two three-hour shifts per
week to remain in the Community Leader Program (CLP). This practice
was in place prior to the formation of the CLO but now became
centralized and enforceable through a single management entity.
The CLP was not only composed of volunteers: at certain levels
volunteers and ACI employees were working together. And there seemed
to be much speculation as to who was getting paid for the work they were
doing. Many felt that teams were composed of both volunteers and paid
staff. One area of the new organization was of particular concern to those
volunteering as guides. The Community Online Support Team (COST)
within the CLO was composed of four teams of volunteers, guides, people
connection hosts, road trip hosts and rangers. The management team at the
level of COST (coordinating the four COST teams) was clearly ACI paid
staff, yet many speculated that at the level of team man agers, those actually
managing guides or rangers, there was a mix of paid and volunteer staff.
When one guide tried to request a list of who was paid and who was not
paid within a certain team, her request was denied. She describes her
frustration as follows:
I wanted to know who’d been paid [:::] so I put in my request for who had been
[:::] promised paychecks and who was receiving paychecks. They refused to
answer that [:::] now why refuse to answer that [:::], and you know people that
were paid that were management from my area refused to answer the question,
but all of a sudden I started getting jumped on by these other people and I know
for a fact that three out of four of those other people got paychecks [:::]. I
understand it’s a corporation and it has a right to make money but I think even a
corporation has to have some sense of morals and what is proper behavior [:::] it’s
For this particular volunteer it was necessary to know who was paid on her
team, because she had also been promised a paycheck when the transition
to ACI took place. This silence created a level of division among the
volunteers and also made it more difﬁcult for individuals to demand
Other policies implemented by management at this time also became
disruptive to the community of volunteers. One such policy involved a
19. Unknown author, interview, ‘‘Interview with Guide Tom D’’.
20. Unknown author, ‘‘Response 2’’, available at www.observers.net/response2.html; unknown
author, interview, ‘‘Reﬂections of a Guide’’, available at www.observers.net/fxguide3.html;
unknown author, ‘‘AOL Glossary’’, available at www.observers.net/index/glossary.html:
Observers.net; and Hector Postigo, phone interview with Kelly Hallisey, 15 February 2001.
Websites last accessed November 2002.
212 Hector Postigo
‘‘Names and Initials’’ folder posted to the community leader forum, the
Community Leader Headquarters (CLHQ). The folder itself was a
repository of screen names that current volunteers used when not on a
shift. Thus, it was possible for volunteers to browse through this folder and
see when a fellow volunteer was in a chat area under his or her ‘‘play-
name’’. That way other volunteers would be able to recognize them and
engage them in conversation about work without fear of violating their
nondisclosure agreement. The ofﬁcial use for the folder was so that some
employees and speciﬁc volunteers would be able to update carbon copy
lists for e-mailing purposes. But since access was not restricted to only
those volunteers with an ofﬁcial use, other volunteers appropriated the list
for their own social purposes. However, in a letter to staff, one of the ACI
COST managers informed the community leaders that access to the
‘‘Names and Initials’’ folder would b e restricted to only those who had an
ofﬁcially sanctioned reason. The community leaders responded with a
series of e-mails and postings protesting the restriction.
The primary reason for the protest was that if a community leader was
released from the program, as was often the case during this period, then
the remaining volunteers would have no way of knowing that person had
left. Th e ‘‘ﬁred’’ community leaders would, as one volunteer put it, ‘‘[slip]
into the night, quietly’’.
CLHQ did have at this time a ‘‘Goodbye’’ folder
which departing community leaders cou ld post to when they left;
however, this folder was only available to those who left voluntarily.
Community leaders who had been let go by AOL would usually get an
e-mail when they logg ed on to AOL informing them that their access to
places like the CLHQ had been terminated; therefore, unless they
contacted other community leaders via another method, there was no
way for these released community leader to address the community-leader
population in general. Before losing access to the ‘‘Names and Initials’’
folder, community leaders could check for the ‘‘play-names’’ of individuals
they had not seen in a while and inquire about their status. Now that level
of access was gone. Some commun ity leaders were quick to speculate that
this was a form of damage control, since it was known among them that
those volunteers who criticized AOL while in ‘‘uniform’’ (a term referring
to being logged on with a name that identiﬁed the user as a volunteer, such
a GuideRRP or HostAtom) were often removed from service.
22. Unknown author, forum log, ‘‘Inside AOL Guide Program Pt. 2’’, available at
www.observers.net/response2.html; last accessed November 2002.
23. Almost every log and interview reviewed for this article, including those posted from
internal AOL sources, mentioned this point. These include ‘‘Inside AOL Guide Program Pt 2’’,
‘‘Interview with Guide Tom D’’, ‘‘Reﬂections of a Guide’’, ‘‘Former Guide RRP’s Story’’, and
unknown author, interview, ‘‘Interview with HostAtom’’, available at http://www.observers.
net/host_atom.html; last accessed November 2002. See also Robert Ablon, ‘‘Was America
Online Out of Line?’’, New Jersey Law Journal (4 December 1995).
213The Case of America Online Volunteers
Community leaders complained bitterly that this change would disrupt
their means of communicating, but management proceeded with the
change anyway. The results of this particular act of restructuring are an
immediately obvious and salient example of what Lawrence Lessig meant
when he said that in cyberspace ‘‘code is the law’’.
By simply changing
the access permissions to the ‘‘Names and Initials’’ folder, management
easily made it much more difﬁcult for volunteers to commun icate with
potentially dissenting members.
The incident concerning the ‘‘Names and Initials’’ folder is of particular
interest because it brought out much of the frustration the community
leaders were feeling with management. Among other things, this incident
was a disruption to the sense of community within the volunteer group
and was emblematic of the process by which some community leaders
began to see themselves as employees. One particular post put it in these
terms: ‘‘Frankly I admit that there are times where I feel like we volunteers
are now work in cubicles, where before it was an auditorium.’’
was not the only outcome of the ‘‘Names and Initials’’ incident. What also
surfaced was the declaration of a general fear among some community
leaders that speaking out against changes would have repercussions.
During the exchange over the folder, some of the community leaders
conﬁded that they normally did not talk about their feelings of
demoralization as a result of the structural changes because of fears that
they would be released, or because they generally found management
inattentive to their concerns.
The rift that was present at this juncture in
the history of the CLO contrasts dramatically with the stories recounted
by some com munity leaders of the early days of AOL.
Things did not seem to be going smoothly for the management of the
CLO either. Management seems to have been under pressure to keep the
community leaders in line and out of litigation as the restructuring
occurred. As one manager put it, ‘‘The mantra that came down from on
high was, ‘Keep them [volunteers] out of the newspapers, out of the
courtrooms, and get as much out of them as you can’.’’
To this end, some
volunteers were consistently promised paying jobs that were continuously
moved out of reach.
One particular guide, for example, was promised a
job as a RAINMAN programmer and waited from January of 1998 until
April of that year to get his ﬁrst check.
When it eventually came, it was
for a lower pay-scale and only covered part of the time he had worked; the
24. Lawrence Lessig, Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace (New York, 1999).
25. ‘‘Inside AOL Guide Program Pt. 2’’.
27. Grove et al, ‘‘The People vs America Online’’.
28. Unknown author, interview, ‘‘Interview with Guide 29’’, available at www.observers.net/
g29.html; last accessed November 2002.
29. ‘‘Former Guide RRP’s Story.’’
214 Hector Postigo
remainder of the time he had worked was still considered volunteered
time. The volunteers were not AOL’s ﬁrst priority, and even some
members of management found themselves in tough positions concerning
the community leaders. An ACI manager, responding to this particular
guide’s complaints, wrote:
ACI staff and community leaders ‘‘were out of site out of mind’’ to most AOL
employees [:::]. Frequently, VPs with budgetary responsibility deferred
decision-making regarding ACI, and on some occasions reversed decisions after
the results of ensuing policies were already being implemented. This caused those
of us managing ACI to go back on promises we had made based on approvals we
had in hand from our VPs. My whole experience with ACI was painful [:::]. I did
not want to be in a position of managing people who I treated as colleagues but
who the company treated as second class citizens.
As the ACI structured the CLO, it also initiated a program called
‘‘member empowerment’’. The thrust of that initiative was to make the
member experience as free from volunteer intervention as possible. Prior
to the restructuring proc ess, members who had been hacked or were being
harassed in a chat-room or via instant message could contact a guide to
either ‘‘nudge’’ the offending member (gently inform him or her of the
Terms of Service contract and of proper online etiquette) or remove the
offender altogether. Under the member empowerment program any TOS
action (an action that resulted in expelling a member for violation of TOS)
was highly discouraged, and members were encouraged to contact the
TOS department themselves via e-mail. According to guides working the
chat-rooms and in the TOS department, these e-mails went largely
unanswered unless the violation was so egregious that the TOS mailbox
The guides most affected saw their positions further
compromised. First they had lost the overhead accounts with access to
RAINMAN and bankable hours, and now they could do very little except
corroborate the complaints about the offending behavior of a member and
hope that enough members complained. Many guides saw this as an
attempt by AOL to boost their member base by simply not enforcing the
All told, the restructuring of the volunteer program at AOL after 1996
resulted in AOL having a much greater degree of control over what the
community leaders did and how they interacted online, especially those
serving as guides. Guides now had to adhere to minimum shift
requirements, engage in the corporate bureaucracy when they needed to
act against a member, enter a structured two-week training session, ﬁll out
31. See ‘‘Interview with Guide Tom D’’; unknown author, interview, ‘‘Inside AOL Guide
Program Pt. 1’’, available at www.observers.net/response1.html (last accessed November 2002);
and ‘‘Interview with Guide 29’’.
215The Case of America Online Volunteers
extensive shift reports, and deal with a management that increasingly
appeared to be unresponsive to their needs. AOL accomplished all of this
by setting up ACI as the organizing proxy for its volunteers, and it
managed to get a hold on its content by taking a larger role in the activ ities
of community leaders. AO L, however, had inadvertently ignored
Gardiner’s recommendations: the proxy organization did not seem to
create enough space between AOL and its volunteers, and by taking such
an active role in the work volunteers did, AOL may have contributed to
volunteers appearing more like employees should the court apply the law’s
Right to Control test for determining employment relationships. ‘‘The
Right to Control test focuses on a factual determination of whether the
employer controls principle aspects of the individual’s work efforts.’’
These include ‘‘(1) amount of training; (2) set work hours; (3) oral or
written reports required; (4) order of work set and signiﬁcant investment
by the worker.’’
By 1999, as many of the CLO’s changes became
entrenched, various community leaders began to see their volunteerism in
a different light.
The volunteers today
It’s clear that not all community leaders were dissatisﬁed with the turn that
volunteering for AOL took, following the creation of ACI and the CLO.
The majority, in fact, were ei ther silent on the matter or echoed one
community leader’s sentiment, ‘‘I knew I was volunteering and what the
work would be and the beneﬁts would be. It was still my choice to do so. If
I wanted to be an employee of AOL, I would apply for one of those
positions [:::] I got what I bargained for.’’
Yet, the few that did change
their attitudes about AOL did so in a dramatic fashion: To them, AOL was
no longer a family affair but an exploitative relationship, no longer fun but
When, in 1999, a group of ex-volunteers ﬁled a class-action lawsuit
against AOL under the Fair Labor Standards Act, most had been released
from service for allegedly criticizing the CLO. When asked to list reasons
why they were willing to work such long hours for so long and only now
chose to ﬁle a grievance, they invariably recounted stories of community
and of feeling good about their volunteer work. While there is little doubt
that many did volunteer for the altruistic rewards, many came to AOL
with other expectations. Some thought that volunteering would be a
springboard to employment in a lucrative Internet company; others
32. Gardiner, Summary of Legal Issues and Options Related to Remote Staff.
34. Unknown author, ‘‘Fighting the Truth, Kicking and Screaming’’, available at www.
observers.net; last accessed November 2002.
216 Hector Postigo
wanted to gain experience with computers; and still others simply wanted
a price break on the hourly rates that were driving their service bill beyond
their budgets. As their expectations failed them, the reorganization process
positioned some of the volunteers to begin reassessin g the meaning of
volunteering and community at AOL. Whether as a means of revenge or as
a means of empowering themselves against organizational and institutional
forces that took from them work they valued, these few ex-volunteers
chose to reco nstitute themselves as employees and began viewing com-
munity as a commodity.
Kelly Hallisey is one of the lead plaintiffs in the 1999 lawsuit. Following
her release from AOL, she joined a group of ex-guides and founded
Observers.net, a website dedicated to critiquing AOL’s business practices.
From Observers.net, Hallisey launched her lawsuit for back wages and
gathered much media attention for her role as an ex-guide. The lawsuit
contends that AOL volunteers are employees of the company, and that
AOL is in violat ion of the Fair Labor Standard Act because it failed to
classify it’s 15,000 volunteers as employees and pay them a federal
minimum wage. Should Hallisey win this case, it would dramatically
restructure the way AOL, and any other portal that uses volunteers to
maintain its technical and social infrastructure, does business. Today,
community leaders who are suing AOL readily recognize their role in the
production process for community, and make direct links between their
work and the proﬁts garnered by AOL. The ex-volunteers have a long
road ahead of them, because they must convince the court and their many
critics that community production online is no mere hob by or leisure
activity, but an organized process yielding a valued commodity. If they
succeed, the value of what they do will no longer be hidden under the
rhetoric of hobby or leisure. As they engage in this next phase of deﬁning
themselves as workers, the story of AOL volunteers becomes a story of
The large socio-economic changes of the past thirty years are of signiﬁcant
importance to an analysis of unwaged labor on the Internet, because they
create the context within which such activities as forming and supporting
community, volunteering, and pursuing hobbies can be tapped as a source
of revenue. Tiziana Terranova ﬁrst put forth the thesis that un waged labor
on the Internet is an aspect of the postindustrial economy in an article
entitled ‘‘Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy’’.
paper, ﬁrst and foremost, adds to that work by investigating examples
35. Tiziana Terranova, ‘‘Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy’’, Social Text,
18 (2000), pp. 33–57.
217The Case of America Online Volunteers
originally pointed out by her. While her work convincingly situated the
phenomenon within the context of postindustrial society, it did not explain
how the labor-exploitative relationship developed speciﬁcally between
free-content providers and commercial interests, such as AOL.
In her analysis, Terranova identiﬁes the emerging phenomenon of
unwaged labor on the Internet as an extension of an ongoing project of
cultural appropriation and commodiﬁcation. She borrows from the Italian
autonomist analysis of late capitalism the concept of the social factory,
which ‘‘describes the process whereby ‘work processes have shifted from
the factory to society’’’,
and uses it to explain both the harnessing of
‘‘Netizens’’’ work b y corporations, and the giving and ‘‘channeling’’ of
such work, freely, by ‘‘Netizens’’ themselves. Taken collectively, the work
of volunteers, content makers, website posters, and all others who add
content to the World Wide Web constitute a ‘‘network of immaterial
labor’’, comprised of a collective intelligence that is the self-organized,
principle productive force of the digital economy. ‘‘Capital’s pro blem’’,
Terranova states, ‘‘is how to extrac t as much value as possible’’,
Terranova is correct in her analysis of the relationship between post-
Fordist production and the cultural production on the Internet. David
Harvey, in The Condition of Postmodernity, points out the emergence,
since 1973, of a new productive regime from the aftermath of the economic
failures of Fordist production. In the wake of the devastation of the
world’s industrial centers following World War II, America stood alone as
the single industrial giant from the 1950s until the early 1970s. During this
period, America’s economy underwent a Golden Age, driven by Fordist
production processes, goods, and patterns of consumption. The Fordist
model relied upon the mass consumption of mass-produced products.
Within this model, various sectors of society came together to form a total
regime of capitalist accumulation dependent on the state, the consumer,
and the laborer.
Signs of a crisis in this regime of accumulation began as European and
Japanese reconstruction reached completion. Increasing levels of competi-
tion destabilized the For dist regime that had been built out of investments
on rigid, ﬁxed capital infrastructures presupposing ‘‘stable growth and
invariant consumer markets’’.
Flexible accumulation emerged as a new
regime after 1973. Organizational structures became more ﬂuid, with the
emergence of outsourced and ﬂex-time labor markets. The ﬂexible
production process of the post-Fordist state depends on constant
36. Ibid., p. 33.
37. Ibid., p. 46.
38. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural
Change (Oxford, 1990), p. 142.
218 Hector Postigo
innovation and product development driving fast-paced markets and
competition. Under ﬂexible accumulation, businesses employ their
ﬂexibility to stay ahead of their competition, and consumption is
dependent on rapid turnover of goods. Goods such as software,
computers, and other technologies, whose production is driven by rapid
and continuous innovation and short market life, have become staples of
the new consumption. Generally then, production patterns have shifted
toward the production of knowledge goods and services.
As David Harvey points out, the econo my could not be sustained by
ﬂexible accum ulation if consumption had not been restructured as well,
primarily by the cultural forces of the ‘‘ﬂeeting qualities of the post-
modernist aesthetic that celebrates difference, ephemerality, spectacle,
fashion and the commodiﬁcation of cultural forms’’.
nature of today’s jobs can hide labor in the context of leisure. In the case of
the Internet, this labor is always in plain site (we see the wealth of
information on the Web) yet those who do the work of generating and
maintaining the Web remain h idden away under the rhetoric of volunteer-
ism or hobby. Terranova tries to get at that ‘‘hiddenness’’, and explains it as
a complex relationshi p between cultural production, or the social factory,
and the technologies and methodologies of postindustrialism.
Ultimately, however, I part ways with Terranova over her analysis of
individuals within this technological/economic vortex; in her desire to
explain the nature of unwaged labor and its relation to the broad historical
shifts of postindustrialism, she too quickly dismisses the AOL volunt eers
and other content produce rs. When discussing AOL volunteers, she
writes, ‘‘Out of 15,000 volunteers only a handful turned against it’’, and
suggests that they work for ‘‘the excitement and dubious promises of
digital work’’. Portraying them so powerlessly leads to a hopeless vision of
what these ‘‘hidden workers’’
may accomplish. While some may have
come to AOL in hopes of attaining what Joe Sullivan has called computer
that ‘‘dubious promise’’, this alone cannot disqualify them from
earning a wage, especially if they so dire ctly contribute to the success of a
company like AOL. Furthermore , when Terranova wrote her analysis in
1999, it is true that only a ‘‘handful’’ had turned against AOL by ﬁling a
39. Ibid., p. 156.
40. Here, I mean hidden in the way Greg Downey suggests when he writes ‘‘Labor is crucial not
just in setting up internetworks but in operating them as well. This kind of ongoing, ﬂexible
labor is hard to see. Indeed the very advantage of constructing an information network can be
that the commodiﬁcation of the virtual serves to mystify the material’’; Greg Downey, ‘‘Virtual
Webs, Physical Technologies, and Hidden Workers: The Spaces of Labor in Information
Networks’’, Technology and Culture, 42 (2001), pp. 209–235, 224.
41. Joseph Sullivan, ‘‘Understanding Computerization: Sociological Concepts for a Phenom-
enological Approach’’, (paper presented at the 1999 Meetings of the Eastern Sociological
Society), p. 26.
219The Case of America Online Volunteers
lawsuit, but many more were frequenting sites such as Observers.net,
posting stories about their fallout with AOL. In 2002, the number of
volunteers ﬁling suit has increased and lawsuits have cropped up in
California and New Jersey, as well as in New York State. One cannot
dismiss such attempts at recognition now. AOL thought its volunteers
were contributing to its content as a form of leisure, but today these
contributors no longer seem like passive ‘‘cultural producers’’ in an
economy that extracts value from them while they passiv ely continue to
Staking out an occupation
The transition of AOL community leaders from volunteers to workers is
one mediated by both self-reconﬁgurations and responses to institutional
changes. In a sense, the case of AOL community leaders is a classic study
of the process by which an occupation is born from unpaid work. At an
early level of development, an occupation lacks the institutional and social
recognition that helps the early ‘‘occupational pioneers’’ convince society
that they are worthy of compensation. The problem is com pounded when
the services they provide are tasks that are generally perceived to be the
work of families and communities, or hobbies and leisure. At the core of
this difﬁculty are ideological perceptions of the relationships between
those who do care-taking work, such as creating communities, the service
itself, and the recipients of the service.
One way of better understanding how these ideological perceptions
came about is to look at women’s labor history. In response to the rapid
growth of capitalism during the nineteenth century, there was a growing
apprehension of the sale of labor power to strangers.
even obsession, as Nancy Folbre has called it, lead to the prevalent
antebellum concept of gender spheres, which designated maintenance of
the home and the associated housework as a woman’s sphere. The notion
of gender spheres suggested that, through women’s self sacriﬁce and
altruism, civilization would be saved from the evils of emerging
materialistic capitalism. Jeanne Boydston further explains how this
concept became entrenched in the popular consciousness by describing
how ‘‘ideology of spheres’’ gained a foothold through prescriptive
literature and romanticism. Ultimately, women’s housework disap peared
in the popular consciousness as a form of labor by being romanticized,
‘‘pastoralized’’ as she puts it, into a form of leisure. Boydston writes:
The metaphors of ideology were transformed into the data of behavior. With no
loss of prescriptive power – indeed, with the enhancement that arises from the
42. Nancy Folbre, The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values (New York, 2001).
220 Hector Postigo
immediacy of lived experience – the symbolic assumed the garb of daily
experience [:::]. As romantic narrative played against lived experience, the labor
and economic value of housework ceased to exist in the culture of Antebellum
Northeast. It became work’s opposite: a new form of leisure.
Community making, as an extension of family maintenance, falls under the
inﬂuence of the same type of rhetoric that ‘‘pastoralized’’ women’s
housework. American society continues to see volunteer work of the kind
that generates and maintains communities (both on and ofﬂine) as market
inalienable, as a noble and altruistic pursuit, even as companies like AOL
In the case of community making, community as a commodity requires
a degree o f de-pastoralization. AOL volunteers must force a reconceptua-
lization of community making as no longer altruistic or an act of familial
responsibility, but rather as a commercial service. They must also force a
reconceptualization of the relations between the service providers and
recipients. That shift must reconﬁgure service relations compelled by
family and community ties to a relationship compelle d by employment
and contract. The community leaders involved in the AOL lawsuit have
started thinking of their work along these lines. They recogniz e commun-
ity as a commodity and understand the key role it played in the ma king of
AOL. One community lead er put this way: ‘‘We were creating commun-
ity, community which is what they [AOL] sell themselves as.’’
Ultimately, the volunteers’ lawsuit is an attempt at forcing a new
understanding of community making.
While the case of AOL commun ity leaders itself follows the pattern of
previous groups’ attempts to stake out new occupational territory,
recognition is not certain. Unlike other groups attempting to make similar
transitions, AOL volunteers lack much institutional support. AOL
refused its volunteers access to its content-creation tools when it became
clear that AOL did not have control over content production. In addition,
by renaming the volunteers from remote staff to community leaders, AOL
moved out of reach much of the institutional rhetoric that would have
helped volunteers shape themselves as being involved in the occupation of
community making. Comparatively, other volunteer groups that did make
the transition to an occupation had considerable institutional support.
Take for example the volunteer IBM user group ‘‘Share’’, founded by IBM
and some of its customers to develop applications for IBM mainframes.
Participation in the Share group was on a volunteer basis, but it is clear that
the group had at its disposal considerable resources to help establish
programming as an occupation. While working on developing applications
43. Jeanne Boydston, Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the
Early Republic (New York, 1990).
44. Hector Postigo, interview with Kelly Hallisey, 15 February 2001.
221The Case of America Online Volunteers
for IBM hardware, it was the availability of resources, such as access to the
company’s computer centers, and the support of supervisors, that made
occupational formation possible.
Ultimately Share programmers did not
stake out their occupational claims through the formation of professiona l
societies and other tactics typical of occupational formation,
through a process of interaction with their large institutional ‘‘customers’’.
Apart from ideological and institutional hurdles, volunteers engaged in
community making online, must ironically transcend their own history.
As stated earlier, community making online has its roots in hacker culture,
and its tradition of free information exchange. AOL community leaders
hoping to recategorize themselves must transcend the history that has
deﬁned them as volunteers and hobbyists. Howard Rheingold in The
Virtual Community, for example, is most often cited as the spokesperson
for understanding online communities. Rooted in the counterculture of
the 1960s, online communities have been described by Rheingold in
romanticized and ideal terms. The work of Pekka Himanen, Eric
Raymond, Peter Wayner, and others involved in the open-source move-
ment has also presented hacking and community making in idealized terms
by giving production of software and content online the aura of the ‘‘gift
The process of value produc tion on the net con tinues to be hidden. Even as
the class action lawsuit against AOL goes to court, many content
producers and volunteers in other venues continue their work. Certainly
they have chosen this path, and one does not wish to patronize them with
claims of false consciousness. Their reasons for contributing are their own.
Some truly ﬁnd it rewarding, and that is payment enough. But for those
who feel cheated by the experience, perhaps the course that the AOL
volunteers h ave taken is appropriate. Such a course does not seem easy,
however, and it comes about through painful realizations about prior
conceptions of contributions to an idealized Internet. For the AOL
community leaders who eventually ﬁled a lawsui t, it was a process marked
with a sense of loss of the promises that the Internet seemed to hold.
Community turned out to be for sale and the AOL ‘‘family’’ turned out to
be alienating as the membership grew. While a ‘‘self-organizing’’,
45. Atsushi Akera, ‘‘Voluntarism and the Fruits of Collaboration’’, Technology and Culture,42
(2001), pp. 710–736.
46. Examples of these tactics include ‘‘linking practice to formal knowledge, teaching recruits,
acquiring rights to self-discipline, and securing legal authority to license and credential
practitioners’’; Bonalyn Nelsen and Stephen Barley, ‘‘For Love or Money? Commodiﬁcation
and the Construction of an Occupational Mandate’’, Administrative Science Quarterly,42
(1997), pp. 619–653.
222 Hector Postigo
harnessable labor force may be a postindust rial dream come true for
corporations, it also proves to be intractable. Attempts to bend the
collective intelligence of the Internet to the will of corporate organization
withers its versatility and its willingness to continue to contribute to the
social factory. In that case, businesses like AOL seem to be facing a double
bind. They need the kind of dynamism that spontaneous cultural
production and organization engender, yet they must avoid the alienating
control structures that often have to be established to operate multibillion-
dollar media conglomerates.
The course that the AOL volunteers have chosen seeks to grasp the
‘‘ephemerality’’ of cultural production, a project made all the more difﬁcult
by the historical baggage that work such as community making seems to
carry. It is further complicated by the ironic trends within Internet history
that situated production within a gift economy. Staking out an occupa-
tional claim is tricky business, because it opens AOL up to a new host of
exploitative practices, such as outsourcing, a process made all the easier by
the nature of ICTs and globalization. Ultimately, however, the AOL
volunteers represent an example, small as it may be, of the possibility of
breaking out of the ‘‘social factory’’ and making visible the new sources of
value in an emerging media world.
223The Case of America Online Volunteers