AOL Hell: An AOL Content Slave Speaks Out
I got the job through a friend. The job was this: I would write about TV for a section of the AOL Television website. In theory, this sounded great. In exchange for writing about “The Simpsons” and other TV shows, I would be making $35,000 a year (which sounded like a shockingly large amount of money to me at the time; and sadly, it still does). I performed this job for less than a year before I was fired. During that period, I wrote more than 350,000 words for AOL.
You’d think it’d be fun, wouldn’t you? Writing about “The Simpsons” and such for money. It’s every slacker’s dream job. And I was making $35,000! I remember that I crossed a certain threshold, soon after I got my new job: I stopped buying “Sensor” brand razor blades, and upgraded to “Schick Quattro” brand razor blades. This was exciting. The “Quattro” had four blades instead of the measly two blades of the “Sensor,” plus a sideburn trimmer on the back, plus it vibrated to supposedly aid the shaving process. This was the big time.
Some people struggle to write for their whole lives, and only dream of ever getting paid for it. And here was I was, Mr. Big-Shot-Razor-Blade-Man, getting paid a real salary. I could sit at home and write in my pajamas while eating take-out food; and that’s what I did. I was so grateful.
But this was part of the problem. We — by which I mean me and my fellow employees — were all so grateful. Which allowed us to ignore — or willfully overlook — certain problems. Such as the fact that AOL editors forced us to work relentless hours. Or the fact that we were paid to lie, actually instructed to lie by our bosses.
I was given eight to ten article assignments a night, writing about television shows that I had never seen before. AOL would send me short video clips, ranging from one-to-two minutes in length — clips from “Law & Order,” “Family Guy,” “Dancing With the Stars,” the Grammys, and so on and so forth… My job was then to write about them. But really, my job was to lie. My job was to write about random, out-of-context video clips, while pretending to the reader that I had watched the actual show in question. AOL knew I hadn’t watched the show. The rate at which they would send me clips and then expect articles about them made it impossible to watch all the shows — or to watch any of them, really.
That alone was unethical. But what happened next was painful. My “ideal” turn-around time to produce a column started at thirty-five minutes, then was gradually reduced to half an hour, then twenty-five minutes. Twenty-five minutes to research and write about a show I had never seen — and this twenty-five minute period included time for formatting the article in the AOL blogging system, and choosing and editing a photograph for the article. Errors were inevitably the result. But errors didn’t matter; or rather, they didn’t matter for my bosses.
I had panic attacks; we all did. My fellow writers would fall asleep, and then wake up in cold sweats. I worked the graveyard shift — 11PM to 7 or 8AM or later — but even the AOL slaves who wrote during the day would report the same universal experience. Finally falling asleep after work, they would awake with a jump, certain that they had forgotten something — certain that they hadn’t produced their allotted number of articles every thirty minutes. One night, I awoke out of a dead sleep, and jumped to my computer, and instantly began typing up an article about David Letterman. I kept going for ten minutes, until I realized I had dreamed it all. There was no article to write; I was simply typing up the same meaningless phrases that we all always used: “LADY GAGA PANTLESS ON LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN,” or some such.
Then there was the week where I only slept for about six hours over the course of five days — a week that ended with me being so exhausted that I started having auditory hallucinations, constantly hearing a distant ringing phone that didn’t exist, or an imaginary door slamming in the background.
At the time this all seemed mysterious. AOL is a billion dollar corporation, and the foundation of its current business model is words. So you would think that AOL might care about the people who write these words. Or, at the very least, that they might care about the words themselves.
But now, I am not so mystified. With the recent release of a top-secret business document from AOL, things have been clarified. “The AOL Way,” as the document is called, lays the whole plan bare — long flowcharts, an insane number of meaningless buzzwords… the works. One slide is titled “Decide What Topics to Cover.” It then lists “Considerations” from top to bottom. “Traffic Potential” is the top consideration, followed by “Revenue/Profit” and then “Turnaround Time.” “Editorial Integrity” is at the bottom.
Specifically, “The AOL Way,” is to massively increase writing production, while at the same time cutting costs. The document reveals the same attitude that the bosses at the old Ford Motors factory had, when the assembly line was first introduced. Every week or so, the assembly-line was sped up; incrementally, barely noticeably, but the increase had a staggering, cumulative effect, and soon, those workers who couldn’t keep up found themselves standing by the wayside. If AOL could find a good way for machines to write about Lady Gaga, they would almost certainly fire the writers who remain.
When it comes to an article, what AOL cares about is the title, and the “keywords” that will make the article more likely to show up among the top results on Google. You type phrases into “Google Trends,” and it suggests the most popular combination of words associated with that topic. You then stick those words into your title and first paragraphs. Rinse, wash, and repeat. The article itself was just ballast.
“LADY GAGA PANTLESS IN PARIS” is the example given in “The AOL Way” internal documents. That’s the best possible title. A buzz-worthy topic, a sexy result. It mattered little if Lady Gaga was actually pantless in Paris; it only had to relate somehow to the article as a whole. The entire title could be a come-on, a tease. It might well turn out that Lady Gaga was neither pantless, nor in Paris at the time. The important part was that the reader would click on those words to read the rest, thereby producing ad revenue for the websites. Words didn’t matter; stealing other people’s work also didn’t matter.
I still have a saved IM conversation with my boss, written after 10 months of employment, when I was reaching the breaking point:
“Do you guys even CARE what I write? Does it make any difference if it’s good or bad?” I said.
“Not really,” was the reply.
AOL has a plan. The plan involves the future; and the future, oddly enough, involves writing. But what does it mean to write without freedom?
Part of the lack of freedom meant it was risky to criticize anyone else who worked with AOL, which is what I did. It was a mistake on my part; a seemingly harmless error brought on by exhaustion, while writing alone in my room at 3 or 4AM. At this point, during the course of writing my ten daily articles, I made an ironic aside about a Hollywood star — implying that he was jealous that another star had won a major award. It was meant to be a joke. It was meant to be ironic — but of course, the Internet is the place where irony goes to die. My article was selected for placement on the AOL home page, which is where the Hollywood star saw it. Since I knew little about AOL corporate structure, I hadn’t realized that this particular star had just signed a multi-million dollar contract to promote the AOL “brand.”
The Hollywood star was not amused. He wrote an article bitching about the stupidity of AOL, and about the stupidity of the AOL home page, and about the stupidity of me in particular. In fact, he said that I was an “eighth-degree black belt idiot.” Ouch. Those words were meant to hurt. This was made all the more distressing by the fact that I actually really enjoy the Hollywood star’s work in real life, and so I had to imagine his proud, rough, gravely voice calling me an “idiot” in real life, over and over again.
I was called into AOL’s offices in Manhattan for the first time and only time. I was reprimanded. I was put on notice. And from then on, my days at AOL were numbered. I wasn’t fired, but a special editor was assigned to review all my articles and tweak them as needed. My new editor would change my articles… and add grammatical errors to them. Lots of grammatical errors. “Its” became “it’s”; “their” became “there” — but with the horrifying result that these things were all wrong.
When I pointed this out to my bosses, they were annoyed by my complaints. Errors didn’t matter. Grammatical errors — be they major or minor — didn’t matter. The brainless peons who read the website simply wouldn’t notice. What mattered was getting the “product” published.
What was happening was that words were starting not to matter. The words that we wrote didn’t matter, and the words that we got in response to them definitely didn’t matter.
And since I wrote for AOL TV, my words doubly didn’t matter. The entire purpose of my columns was to get the reader to click on the “Read More” link: when this happened, a video would automatically start to play; this was a video that we had added our own advertisements to — ads for Ford and Match.com and McDonalds and so on. This practice is arguably illegal; but that’s fine — after all, AOL has taken part in many illegal activities before. Inserting our own ads into other people’s videos was how we made our money, and that was the entire purpose of our writing: to get readers to click on the video that led to the ad. Of all the shows that we featured, only the “Conan” show rebelled, pointing out that we were stealing their content and inserting our own ads. There wasn’t much writing about “Conan” after that.
Was this my destiny? Writing words in order to make gullible people be auto-forced to watch ads? This wasn’t what I wanted… was it? Had I gotten a master’s degree in writing in order to do this? Even if I had, it was a destiny that I rebelled against. But was it what I was meant to do? …No. Probably not.
And so, eventually I was fired, of course. Fired for complaining about typos and for insulting a Hollywood star and such — fired even though I routinely worked unpaid overtime and would generally log 60 or 70-hour work weeks.
Under “The AOL Way” a huge number of other people were fired as well. AOL was hemorrhaging money. They had invested in a bad business plan, and we — the poorly paid writers — were the ones to pay. Never mind that paying us writers made up an incredibly tiny fraction of AOL’s total expenditures. We were all fired anyway. Some 30% to 40% of us were fired. We received a form letter; an email form letter informing us that our services were no longer needed.
The most depressing aspect of the whole affair was reading the responses to this letter. Yes, my fellow co-workers — all of them hard workers, all of them fairly poor, all of them now fired with no unemployment (AOL paid us as “independent contractors,” meaning that no money was provided for unemployment) — these people were sending out polite email responses to an automated form letter that had fired them. “I have so many great memories of working for AOL,” they said. “It was a privilege to work with so many talented people.” There were no replies to these responses — essentially, my co-workers were saying “thank you” to an uncaring robot. They may as well have been trying to have a conversation with the coffee maker in AOL headquarters. And many of these people had been working at AOL for years, sometimes more than a decade.
I disliked my job, but I dreaded being fired from it, and with good reason; it’s been five months since my firing now, and I’ve run through my savings, and I still haven’t found another full-time writing gig.
And, as much as I need the money, maybe I shouldn’t. AOL is among the most egregious offenders — but then, this isn’t just an article about AOL. This is an article about a way of life. “The AOL Way” doesn’t simply stand as a pattern for a major corporation; it’s the pattern of the Internet as a whole. The Internet has created more readers than ever before in the history of the world. And yet, perversely, the actual writer is more undervalued than ever before. Every news site that hopes to survive, The Faster Times included, thinks about whether their titles will show up in search engines. In the age of Internet news, Google “keywords” matter. …Regular old words, not so much.
Read More: The Confessions of a Summer Intern
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