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<nettime> Corporate Cool: Life on One of AOL's Channels
Robin Banks on Fri, 18 Sep 1998 08:56:51 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Corporate Cool: Life on One of AOL's Channels


* * *
Corporate Cool: Life on One of AOL's Channels
By Robin Banks=20
* * *

Deep in the heart of the Northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington,
D.C., in an arena at George Mason University, the stage is dark when the
blues band starts. They play and play; though seen only in silhouette
behind a backlit screen, they manage to whip up quite a groove as the
stage lights flash faster. The space, usually used for college basketball
games and pop concerts, is filled this afternoon with casually dressed but
wholesome-looking young adults, as it might be any evening. But today,
each attendee wears a photo ID badge around the neck.=20

The band plays faster and faster down below - now they're rendering the
Blues Brothers movie theme - as the purple-and-white lights crescendo. Two
figures get out of a police car parked on the arena's floor. The figures
wear sunglasses and fedoras, but it's clear once they get out and run
onstage to roaring applause: These cleanshaven, tidy-haired corporate men
ain't no Blues Brothers.=20

More like the khaki brothers. But, like the Blues Brothers, the khaki
brothers are On a Mission. And they're full of conviction that that
mission - running the America Online empire - makes them cool.
=20
One, Bob Pittman, co-founded behemoth teen tastemaker MTV and moved on to
head middle-American real estate franchiser Century 21 before bringing his
mass-market sensibilities to AOL, where he is now president. The other,
Steve Case, spent his tender years as a pizza designer for Pizza Hut
before founding the online service that would become the world's largest.
He is now its chairman, and thus he is the idol of a thousand young
hopefuls in the corporate ranks.=20

Welcome to America Online's annual "all-hands meeting and beer bash."
Welcome! It's the word on the free pen they give you at orientation on
your first day at work, and it's the word your computer will chirp when
you log on for the last time the day you quit and they kill your account.

To get to the much-touted microbrews and barbecue at the mega-meeting, the
employees sit through jargon-heavy speeches by all the execs, white man
after white man, with one white woman (PR head Kathy Bushkin) thrown in.
The orating focuses in large part on that stated "mission" of AOL's. It's
this: "To build a global medium as central to people=92s lives as the
telephone or television, and more valuable."=20

AOLers-as-missionaries is today's theme, hence the Blues Brothers
reference ("We're on a mission from God"). Steve Case is shouldering the
old white man's burden: to give the masses what he sees fit for them (and
thereby, it goes without saying, reaping enormous profits).=20

He's doing it in his usual uniform of denim AOL-logo shirt and khakis.
Oh-so-casual yet painstakingly bland, it's a look much emulated around the
AOL "campus" by twenty- and thirty-something male employees who, like
their female counterparts, drive BMWs with vanity plates to work, where
they sit at desks covered in Beanie Babies inside cubicles decorated with
"cool" ads.=20

Things not well branded are not held in high esteem here.=20

*

The hip image aimed for at the Blues Brothers beer-bash meeting is less
successful, less cleanly orchestrated, down the food chain.

"Cool," says a manager. "Rock and roll."=20

He is addressing his underlings, 10 or 20 young adults, as they sit around
a conference room table. They are some of the legions who program the
content onto AOL's colorful, ad-plastered screens. They're wearing jeans,
t- shirts, the odd tattoo. The unwincing 20- and 30-something employees
are clearly used to the casually misbegotten nuggets of slang liberally
tossed into the newspeak.

All statements are positive, "win-win." Talk at this meeting, held by one
of AOL's "creative" departments, largely revolves around how the
department is going to hold up its end of sweetheart contracts with other
corporations. Such deals, a hefty cornerstone of AOL's strategy, usually
amount to the sale of a piece of AOL's heavily-trafficked cyberspace to
another corporation wishing to park its content, ads, or Web site
connections where AOL's 12 million members will see them. The terms of
sale, lease or trade vary widely; sometimes AOL pays, sometimes the other
party. Meetings and mass email messages mandate how best to serve these
corporate "partners," or dictate new conditions tacked onto their
contracts.

These meetings also sometimes touch on how AOL can better deliver its
other product - a "quality member experience" - to its other customers,
the oft-cited 12 million "members." It's the usual commercial media
equation: selling a product to an audience + selling that audience to
advertisers =3D profit. But AOL seems to spend less time worrying about how
to serve viewer-readers than a conventional media outlet would. That might
not come as a shock to anyone who spends time clicking around the service,
trying to find something to read behind the promotional teasers scattered
everywhere.=20

These employees stick this content up on AOL's screens after it is
produced elsewhere, text and picture, by another corporation's employees
far away in some other hive. AOL has chosen to make contracts with dozens
of magazines, wire services, television networks and reference-book
companies in lieu of paying writers, editors, and photographers to produce
original coverage. Such convenience of access has its benefits, if this is
the kind of thing you want to read. But a visit to the public library gets
you much of the same product for free:  Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek,
Compton's - except without the email account.=20

Like the all-hands spectacle, the departmental meeting is more briefing
than discussion. The manager tends to rattle off names of fellow managers,
in-house acronyms and project code words unintroduced.  But none of the
Gen-X attendees are playing Buzzword Bingo under the table. It's a sad,
but familiar, lack of solidarity among the drones.

*

Stock options, which even entry-level content programmers get, usually
vest after the first year of employment at AOL. Funnily enough, after
exactly that length of time, many people are out the door.=20

But "creatives" are probably easy to replace. The fields that more
traditionally employ them are notorious for their starvation wages, and
AOL's money and benefits sound comparatively good during the interview.
And they would be, if more job satisfaction came with them.

Plenty of staffers say they're demoralized by micromanagement and chronic
understaffing. So they end up fighting each other over time off and who
will do that last extra chore.

Smile, smile, wink, wink, go the bosses' emoticons in their "instant
messages," via which they drop orders on their swamped underlings even as
those underlings type furiously. Thanks to the wonderful AOL medium of
"IMs," the boss needn't look into the employee's harried eyes before s/he
delivers the instructions - s/he needn't even be in the office.=20

An "IM" is a small, temporary chat window that pops up on the screen of
the person you send it to, if they're online. Wonderful invention for
people miles apart. Bad invention for people separated by a cubicle wall,
a few feet and a chasm of misunderstanding

Interdepartmental communication got the worst marks on AOL's employee
survey this year and last year. But communication with direct colleagues
- the people one has to see every day - makes all the difference to an
employee's morale and quality of life. The "interactive media" jobs at
this "network" company are done by individuals sequestered alone and
working frenetically in high-walled cubicles (which AOL calls "pods")
and, in some cases, at staggered times of day and night.
=20
As long as workers are kept apart, people can't exchange information on a
broad enough scale to realize it's not just their personal failure to fit
in that's making their job suck.=20

The old-fashioned network that internet employees could most benefit from,
the labor union, is explicitly discouraged in the AOL employees' handbook.
"We know you are more than just an AOL employee.  You're an individual and
deserve to be treated as such...We feel it is not in the best interests of
you or the company to participate in union activities. Instead, speak for
yourself - directly with management."  AOL's anti-union shop depends on
the anti-collective attitude of the young members of the specialist class
who grew up under Reagan. If you come straight to Daddy instead of falling
in with those bad other kids, we'll work something out. But don't dare go
behind our backs. We know you wouldn't; we expect your loyalty. And anyway
(appealing here to computer-geek arrogance), you, alone, are your own best
representative.=20

Not only does big daddy expect you not to need unions - you'd also better
not expect any coddling and hand-holding from him. You work for a "cool
company," don't you? What could you have to complain about?=20

This is where the mandatory "performance management workshops"  come in.
Here, workers are drilled to internalize the "management" of their own
"performance." This means, roughly summarized: Set your own goals, but
make sure they match up with the company's "core values," or you'd best
find another company. And if you need more or less supervision from your
boss, tell him or her so. It's that easy. The workshops are softened up
with Dilbert cartoons, which are served without a trace of irony.=20

Many employees complain of AOL's workaholism. Low-level employees are
expected to go the extra mile, but at a tiny fraction of the starting
pay of other professions requiring slavish dedication - medicine, law.
The reward? None is suggested; apparently, you're supposed to feel
privileged just to work here. "There's a gym," one worker says, "but I
can't go because nobody in my group takes an hour for lunch."=20

That contrasts starkly with the employee handbook's assurance that AOL has
the gym because it cares about your physical well-being. One thing AOL
does use the gym for is to parade middle-aged male visitors in suits
through on their tours of the headquarters as young employees work out on
the stair machines.=20

Meanwhile, as one-year anniversaries roll around and people quit, more
hopeful B.A.s are bought off with a handful of stock options that sound
great but wouldn't pay off a year's college loans. In the information
sweatshop economy, a four-year degree is required for the lowliest
administrative job. And people with advanced degrees and specialized
computer training can make less in real dollars than, say, dropouts who
worked in box factories did in 1974. As the U.S. work force solidifies
into two camps, rich and poor, what gold there was in them thar Silicon
hills has pretty much already been claimed.=20

But there are a few happy faces rushing through AOL's corridors, carrying
cafeteria-made wrap sandwiches and Starbucks mochas back to their desks.
White male faces, mostly, attached to bodies dressed in Dockers and
pressed shirts. To them, working here is apparently fat city.=20

Most are, or think they are, on the management track. And at least a few
are on a smug, egregious class climb, bragging about wine, resorts, cars,
and boats. For all their lip service to "new media," these typical
middle-management types are planted firmly on the creaky old corporate
ladder. All the cliches hold: a tasteless love of money and conspicuous
consumption, fatuous fawning before higher-ups, and shameless open
competition for the boss' attention.

They might want to think twice about their loyalty. Sure, this corporation
is no worse than most others, and probably better than some (no piss
testing, for one thing). But it's common knowledge that for its users,
AOL's happy-face icons mask buggy software, slow connections and
overloaded modems. And inside the company, underneath the cheap strokes of
occasional keg parties, mass-emailed words of thanks, and management
mumbo-jumbo, the company invests about as much in its wetware as it does
in its semi-disposable soft- and hardware. Both as a mass producer of
adfotainment and as a "corporate culture," AOL represents the cynical
exploitation of the lowest common denominator. Meet the new media
corporation, same as the old corporation but with more ads and less
content.=20

So when you walk for the last time, stock options in your pocket, out of
the former aircraft hangar with its glossy, soaring lobby decorated with
friendly icons and away from the endless rat-maze cubicles tucked away
behind, you'll say it as cheerily as your account says it when you log off
for the last time: Goodbye.=20

--------
Robin Banks worked closely with a large online company but is no longer
for sale to corporations.
--------


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