Dumb Things I Have Done Lately

Friday, June 05, 2009

Why Yes, the AOL Time Warner Retirement Plan IS Administered by "PunkRocks"

Here's the most ridiculous AOL employee password phishing e-mail ever. (The fact that I got it also shows the phisher is working off an old internal employee list and only adds to the ridiculousness):
From: [redacted]@gmail.com
Subject: Retiring yourself from AOL?
Date: June 5, 2009 8:10:43 PM EDT
To: [my old AOL business screenname]@aol.com


The depression has struck the entire nation, including us here at AOL Time Warner. Some associates may no longer be eligible for retirement plans. As the depression locks its grip on us in an unstable fashion, and we spiral toward financial disaster, there is little to do other than ride out the storm and hope for the best.

5,000 employees are no longer eligible for retirement.

To find out if your plan has been canceled, please do the following:

1. Instant Message the AIM BOT Screen Name "PunkRocks" and login to the system by IMing your credentials in this format: [ScreenName][Password][SecurityCode]
2. Your updated retirement plan file will be pulled up and displayed for your viewing.

Remember: Your plan MAY still be active. You MUST Instant Message "PunkRocks" with the above information to verify.

We apologize and have no further information at this time,
AOL Time Warner
Outside of the purpleness of the prose and the ludicrousness of the idea of an "AOL Time Warner" retirement, a few comments:
  • People still phish for AOL employee accounts. Who knew? And they say AOL is no longer relevant.
  • Sure, Gmail has always been the preferred e-mail host for AOL Time Warner benefits information.
  • Why, yes, the AOL Time Warner retirement plan has always been administered by screen name "PunkRocks" (I'm assuming it's a compromised account, of course.)
On my inaugural Facepalm Scale, I give it a five out of five -- the highest possible score! Congratulations!


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Monday, February 16, 2009

Preparing for Your Impending Layoff From AOL

Welcome! You've got layoffs: A preparation guide for AOL employees.

joetux2005Welcome, soon-to-be-former AOL employee! I'm Joe Loong, graduate of the AOL Layoff Class of October, 2007, and I'm here to offer you a few bits of advice gleaned from my own personal layoff experience.

I hope that these items will help you prepare for your own imminent layoff, and ease your transition into the job market during this worst economic climate since the Great Depression.

This guide is primarily written for Northern Virginia worker bees. Employees from other locations and pay grades are welcome to add their advice in the comments, which I will integrate to the guide.

Things You Should Do Now
Hey, it's not personal. It's just business. Except when it's not. Regardless, whether you volunteer or are "asked" to leave, whether the layoff happens on the 24-25th of February or March or any other damn time, here are a few things you should do ahead of time:

* Update your resume and online profiles: Hopefully, you've been doing this all along, but if not, now's the time. Especially important these days is your LinkedIn account.

* Detach from your corporate e-mail address: Speaking of LinkedIn, Carles, an AOL alum now over there adds, "Add your personal email account to your LinkedIn account, and then make it your primary LinkedIn email. It is heartbreaking when people are laid off and lose access to their email, and then can't recover their LinkedIn passwords. Don't let this happen to you."

Good tip: If you were silly enough to register for any accounts or profiles using your corp.aol.com address (which you don't get to keep), make sure you update them with a personal e-mail address that you control. The same thing goes for any snail mail you got at work that you cared about. (I admit I still give my old cube address and phone extension whenever I don't want to hand out my real info, like for supermarket club cards and such.)

* Search for yourself: Google your own name -- if people are searching for you, will they be able to find you? If not, take steps to improve your own search results.

Doing a vanity search will also let you know if you need to sanitize your Facebook profile to make yourself appear more employable. (And if you're still using your Myspace page -- come on now, you're a grown-up.)

* Find your old performance evaluation forms (whatever it is they're using now, formerly GOALign, FPR, etc.), because this is the one and only time they'll come in handy -- they're useful for figuring out what the hell you did (if anything) during your career.

Thanks to the guidance of your manager, your annual evaluations should be chock-full of impressive-sounding numbers and metrics. So what if they're meaningless, or even completely made up -- you can still use them to spice up your resume. ("Programmed the AOL.com home page, where my promotions were ignored by literally billions of impression eyeballs.")

* Take screenshots. Sure, maybe not every one of the products you ever touched has been sunset. You might still want to screenshot or sitesuck some examples of things you worked on.

* Use your employee discounts. Now's the time to take advantage of your employee discounts -- the Apple store, the Philips store, etc. But, don't go too crazy -- after all, you may be losing your job.

* Take advantage of your health benefits: Make appointments for checkups and any needed health, dental and vision procedures. Sure, you've got 18 months of COBRA, but you might as well use your benefits while you still have them.

Also, regarding your
Health Care Flexible Spending Account [suggested by anonymous]: I never participated, though my paperwork said you could continue files claims against your HCFSA balance under COBRA through the end of the current calendar year (there are some costs associated with it).

reports that employees laid off in 2008 had a day to use or lose their remaining balance, though I have no additional information about that -- you're going to have to find a member of the Class of 2008 to confirm or deny that, to figure out if you're going to want to draw down what's in your account before the big day.

* On making a copy of your ID.
I'm not saying you should do this. But if you did, it should be only for sentimental reasons.

* Stock up on office supplies. I'm not advocating wholesale theft. But some of those pens are nice. Also the ubiquitous Ampad Project Planner notebooks.

* Make a copy of your Fitness Center workout chart. This will help you track your descent into sloth and give you a sense of all the ground you need to make up when you start caring about working out again.

* Backup any personal files on your work machines. This includes anything that you have on share drives (not that you should have personal files on share drives). A portable or luggable hard drive is good for this.

IMG_0667* Have a plan for your swag. You've probably accumulated a lot of AOL-branded swag over the years. Like, say, commemorative leather and brass Circuit City coasters. (Oh, the irony.)

You're going to have enough to deal with, and packing up your things on layoff day is going to be stressful enough. And you really don't want to have to take multiple trips out to your car. So have a plan for what you're going to take with you, and what you're going to leave behind. This includes consumables, like food, sodas, beers, etc. -- either consume them beforehand, or plan on leaving them behind for whoever's left.

* Planning on leaving on your own accord? [suggested by Kevin Lawver]: "...if you're planning on leaving, wait a couple months and see if they'll take volunteers. I missed out on the whole severance, outplacement stuff by about a month..." (He has more to say about upper management in his comment.)

Things You Should Do on Layoff Day (Etiquette and More):

* Assuming you know what day things are gonna get real, dress in a manner appropriate to the occasion:

Layoff day, October 2007.

* Sequester Your Laptop: Bill Kocik suggests leaving your laptop in your trunk until you know you're safe -- this is to buy yourself more time in case you were slack and didn't back up your personal files. (Also, Verisign is looking for Java devs.)

* Twittering your layoff: I wasn't on Twitter for my layoff, but a lot has changed in the intervening time. Instead of giving exclusives to bottom feeders who justify gawking at mass layoffs as an "interesting sociological event," consider using the hashtag #AOLLayoffs09 for your layoff-related tweets and mobile updates. (You can also tag your subsequent blog entries, photos, and other associated media with "AOLLayoffs09")

If you aren't yet on Twitter... well, that wouldn't surprise me. Now would be a good time to start.

* Try not to toss your cookies:

Remnants from the Dec 2006 Layoffs

* For Blackberry users [from anonymous]: If you were issued a Blackberry and ported over your personal cellphone number instead of getting a new one, see if they can do a reverse port (so you can keep your cellphone number.)

* Take your time leaving. You're not being run out of town on a rail. Take your time and make sure you have everything you need. Check your mailslot, even if you've never seen it before. Say goodbye to the people you want to say goodbye to.

* Send your farewell e-mail. Now is not the time to settle scores. Don't burn your bridges. Thank people you need to thank, and make sure they have your contact information. I offer my own valedictory e-mail as an example.

Oh, and you get to keep your screenname (unless it has something that identifies it as an AOL business screen name).

* Look behind you at least once on the way out.

* The afterparty:
First, let me know where it is. I recommend Clyde's in Ashburn. That place is huge, so don't listen to any nonsense rumors about it being closed by the Fire Marshall due to overcrowding.

If you're going to hit up your former cow-orkers for sympathy nookie, or otherwise get toasted and sloppy... hey, what are they going to do, fire you? Just try not to burn any bridges, and make sure you have a ride home -- getting a DUI is not what you need at this point.

* Call your parents. Tell them not to worry. You'll be fine.

DSCF3405.JPGSo, You've Been Laid Off -- Things to Do Afterwards:

* Read your paperwork: There are some things you'll need to sign, and dates you won't want to miss. If you need to talk to an employment lawyer, talk to a lawyer.

* Transition/Outplacement: Whatever transition assistance they offer (if they do), take it. Maybe you want to open your own consulting shop, or need resume help, or just want to get out of the house and touch base with other members of your graduating class. At least see what they have to offer.

* File for unemployment [suggested by anonymous]: I didn't try to collect unemployment. Pride, stubbornness, stupidity, something. Don't let that stop you: Virginia | Maryland | DC

* Keeping in touch: You will lose touch with your work friends. At least a little bit. That's to be expected. The question is, do you want to be the aging alumni who hangs out at the old school way too much and too long, Wooderson? ("Awright, awright, awright.")

The thing about the DC Metro area is that you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a former AOL person. And some of us aren't completely useless. You're probably networked better than you know, just by being a cog in a big machine that's lost a lot of parts.

- On Facebook, join the AOL Reunion - DC Metro Area (they just had a reunion last week), and the other AOL groups and networks.

- There's also an AOL Alumni Association group. And of course, don't forget LinkedIn, Google Groups, etc.

- If you're staying in the area, network and participate in local events, like events listed in Upcoming.org, Meetup.com, DCTechEvents.com, and GarysGuide.org.

* Join a gym: The perk I miss most was the convenient onsite fitness centers. I really let myself slide after my layoff. If you have a home setup that you actually use, or can come up with a bodyweight, biking or running routine that doesn't require a gym (and that you'll stick to), you can skip this, but for everyone else, don't wait too long -- join a gym. (Here are the Reston options I looked at -- I never considered Gold's.)

* On boomeranging: I wouldn't. I know plenty of people who have. Hey, a job's a job, right? Especially these days.

* Go have some fun: I didn't, really. Again, you might not be able to go on an around-the-world trip, but do something. You've got a window -- use it.


That's all I've got right now. I know I'm missing things. Really, I'm still in post-layoff mode myself, even though I've been out for 14 months and am half-assing it around as a social media/online community consultant, just like every other asshole out there.

If you've got tips to contribute to dealing with your AOL layoff, please leave a comment, or send me an e-mail, IM, Twitter, Facebook message or whatever and I'll add it to the appropriate spot.

Good luck with your layoff!

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Things That Are Upcoming: Gigs, Guns, and Blogs

Here are a bunch of things I'm looking at over the next few months. I say this in spite of the fact that I passed on tonight's Over the Rhine show at Birchmere (so very tired). And this may not include events that I can't talk about, should they exist:

* Tonight, Feb 9, 7:30pm: DC area Tweetup, Indique Heights in Chevy Chase. Indian food and good conversation amongst some of DC's Twitter elite. (Twee-leet?) Free, all welcome.

* Tuesday, Feb 10, 5-9pm: AOL Employee Reunion, eCitie in Vienna. Given the economic and employment outlook (for the industry as a whole and AOL in particular), current employees might want to check in on this, too.

The venue also provides a bit of irony -- eCitie opened during Dotcom Bubble 1.0, and during the heydey, they took great pains to make sure the Lambos, Ferraris, Bentleys and such were parked prominently and ostentatiously out front.

Also Tuesday, 7:30pm: The Puppini Sisters, who I will be missing, yet again, at Birchmere.

And, from Feb 10 to Feb 15, the muppet musical Avenue Q plays the Warner Theatre. Tickets start at $45. Also, the Internet is for porn.

* Wednesday, Feb 11, 9pm: College basketball, Duke vs. UNC. Not sure where I'll be for the game, but I'll be somewhere.

* Feb 13-15: Nation's Gun Show, Dulles Expo Center, Chantilly. Notable if only for timing (Valentine's Day), and because this is just after the Virginia legislature just killed a bill to close the so-called gun show loophole (which would have required private sellers at gun shows to conduct instant background checks, just as federally-licensed firearms dealers are required to do.)

* Sun, Feb 15, 7:30pm: Cowboy Junkies, Birchmere. Sold Out (I snoozed, I losed.)

* Wed, Feb 18, 7pm: February Washington Blogger Meetup at RFD in DC. We had an okay turnout last month -- a lot more "yes" RSVPs than actually showed up. I know I'll be hitting up the Wordpress folks for some Blogger-to-Wordpress transition advice.

* Thurs, Feb 19, 6pm: Bloggers for Good Meetup, O'Faolain's in Sterling. Networking with the proceeds supporting charities. More info here.

Also, 7:30pm, Fountains of Wayne play an acoustic gig at Birchmere. Sold Out.

* Sat, Feb 21, 7:30pm: DC 10th Anniversary Fark Party at The Black Rooster Pub in DC. Drew Curtis will be there -- this is part of his extended bender world tour celebrating Fark's 10th Anniversary.

DC Fark parties are always fun, though the appearance of Drew will undoubtedly bring out all the lurkers and superlurkers (folks who read Fark, but don't even have accounts).

* Thu, Feb 26, 6pm: TechCocktail DC 4, at LeftBank in Adams Morgan. This is a new venue, relocated from the now-closed MCCXXIII.

Looking out a little farther:

* Sat, Mar 14: Shamrockfest at RFK.

* Fri, Mar 20, 8pm: Ting Tings at the 9:30 Club. I already have my ticket, so call it a definite unless something unexpected comes up.

* Thu, Mar 26 (all-day): My birthday.

* Fri, Mar 27 (7pm happy hour) and Sat, Mar 28 (all-day): Government 2.0 Camp (more: Facebook | Eventbrite)

* Sat, Apr 4, 8pm: Mates of State, 9:30 Club (soft sale right now, it's not on the main page listing yet)

* Sat, Apr 11, 8pm: Demetri Martin, Warner Theatre. Just saw this listing. Call it a maybe -- perhaps seeing his new series on Comedy Central will sway me.

* Sat, Apr 18, 8pm: Legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, Warner Theatre. I saw him a few years ago, in Rahway, NJ of all places. Tickets start at $40 and go to $80. If you go, don't be that guy who yells out, "Take Five!" Just don't.

* Fri, Apr 24m 8pm (pre-party) and Sat, Apr 25 (all-day): 2009 Milblogging Conference, Westin Arlington Gateway. $50. I went in 2007 (and blogged about it in my now-dead AOL Journals blog -- 2008 was in Vegas with Blog World Expo, which I didn't attend). In 2007, they were talking about mainstream media lagged behind milbloggers about the Anbar Awakening, curious to see what they're talking about now.

* Sat, May 2 (all-day): Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race. Get working on your entry and/or costume now. Mine will have to involve skates. I suppose I should try to post my 2008 photos and video before then. (More info at Kinetic Baltimore)

* Sat, May 17 (all-day): The second-ever Washington Post Hunt. I swear that I got nearly 75% of the way to solving each of the puzzles, by my lonesome. (Except for the final puzzle, which was crazy convoluted.) With a team, I will win. I will!

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On AOL's MediaGlow and a Need for a Red State/Blue Collar Blog

I was looking over the big to-do this week about AOL finally baptising the Web publishing unit with the name "MediaGlow." (Incidentally, MediaGlow is pretty anagram-rich -- highlights include "Wild Omega," "Dime Aglow," "Mid Lo Wage," and of course, "Lewd Amigo").

Being outside looking in, I just know what I read in the trades, so I have no idea how much traffic they get from other AOL properties. But it seems to me, trapped by my prior experience as I am, that there's nothing really new under the sun -- they're just recreating their content channel strategy, only unbranded, blog-based, completely outside the client (duh), and oh yeah, relying heavily on relatively low-paid contractors.

(Bonus: No need for costly partnerships for content... just steal content [it's not really stealing if you attribute it properly], borrow graphics and link externally, like every other blog out there.)

When I was at People Connection, I was tangentially involved in our own niche blog efforts. These were independent of the channels' blog efforts; some of what we were doing didn't really make sense (until you accounted for organizational dynamics); and most of these are now dead.

A Red State Strategy
One thing that I suggested a few times, but didn't get any traction, was a "Red State" content niche play. I don't mean Red State in the political sense; I just meant "anything not favored by the bi-coastal media elite." God, guns, and gays. [That is, anti-gay, or at least not homo-friendly.]

Probably NASCAR, too.

I still think there's an opportunity. It would involve extensive coverage of:

* Guns, hunting and shooting sports. (There are a lot of gun nut message board community forums and blogs, but off the top of my head I can't come up with a slick, channel-style niche blog)

* Religion. I don't mean this high-falutin' BeliefNet-style "spirituality" crap. I mean prayer circles (requests for prayer, prayer-swapping -- people do this), guys in John 3:16 clown shock wigs, that sort of thing.

Yeah, I'm cynical and opportunistic when it comes to religion. But no moreso than the Bush administration.

* Larry the Cable Guy. Hey, I'm on the David Cross-side of the debate (to the extent that there is one), but somebody out there likes him.

* Wal-Mart. And not the breast-beating, muckraking stuff. It's the biggest employer in the US, and most of the country has shopped there. Shouldn't BloggingStocks give them a "The Unofficial Wal-Mart Weblog" treatment, more than a half-assed subcategory listing? If Trader Joe's has a fan site, shouldn't Wal-Mart?

* Living With Your Obesity-Related Health Complications lifestyle pieces.

If this list sounds condescending, it is. But not intentionally -- I'm a product of the urban/suburban East Coast, and I've spent a lot of time near the media elite. But it seems to me that there's an entire audience out there that deserves to be pandered to, that the bicoastal media elite won't touch because it's uncool. (At least, not until the hipsters ironically co-opt pieces of their culture -- see Crafting, PBR, and Deer Hunter videogames in bars.)

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Corporate CYA for Pearl Harbor Day (2001 Edition)

I'm going through some old work files and swag while watching the Duke-Michigan basketball game (second half is starting right now, Michigan is up), and I found this memo, which dates back to 2001, which was the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Since the date of the attack, of course, was December 7th, it's a pretty timely and serendipitous find:
Subj: EXTREMELY IMPORTANT: 60th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor
Date: 11/26/01 5:44:29 PM Eastern Standard Time
From: [redacted]
To: [redacted]
Sent on: AOL 5.0 for windows sub 138

Hi Everyone,

We have a very important issue regarding any promotion of the 60th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor, occuring Dec 7th. It is VERY important that ads and promos for Japanese auto partners like Toyota, Lexus, Nissan, and Honda, or any other Japanese product producing partners, do not appear anywhere in Pearl Harbor packages or News packages related to Pearl Harbor. Any Pearl Harbor packages should run house ads to shield these major, major advertisers from any unwanted rotations. As you can imagine, this is a very sensitive topic for those companies, and we want to make sure we cover our bases.

If you are planning to promote Pearl-Harbor related content on any of your screens and have questions, please let Edit Ops know. Your diligence and cooperation are greatly appreciated!


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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Revisiting a Spectacularly Unfortunate Ad Placement, 12 Years Later

In preparation for my 1-year layoff anniversary (this Thursday), I was going through some of my old AOL files, when I came across a news item from October, 1996, that I'd saved and forgotten. It's about a 12-year-old kid who killed his mother, then himself, because he'd run up a big AOL bill.

Tragic story, of course -- even moreso, because AOL went to unlimited pricing two months later.

However, the reason I'd saved the HTML file and accompanying graphics (it's an AP story, but it was on the Washington Post), was because of the intersection between commerce and news -- check out the ad:

Erols Unlimited Internet
Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help

Go to Main Story
Go to Today's Top News

Online Bills Lead to Tragedy

Tuesday, October 1, 1996; 10:50 a.m. EDT

CALIFORNIA, Mo. (AP) -- A 12-year-old boy may have killed his mother and himself after the two fought about the boy's extensive time spent using a computer online service, investigators said.

The body of Ann Hoffman, 42, was found Thursday at her home with six gunshots in her head, Sheriff Kenny Jones said. Her son, Brad Hoffman-Parker, had a single gunshot to the head, and a .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol was found nearby.

A day earlier, Hoffman's ex-husband, David Lee Parker, visited her and his son to discuss the seventh-grader's use of an Internet access service, Jones said. The parents shared custody of the boy.

The father claimed Hoffman "was upset over the bills, because of America Online" and that the boy spent "long hours" using a personal computer in the home, Jones said.

Investigators had not determined how much time Brad spent online and the amount of his bills. California is 110 miles east of Kansas City.

© Copyright 1996 The Associated Press

Back to the top

Yes, in a story about a kid who committed a murder-suicide thanks to AOL and hourly metered Internet access, the ad is for a "Why Pay Hourly?" Erols Internet unlimited pricing plan.

The ad, which I assume was served up because Erols had targeted AOL keywords, is either spectacularly inappropriate, or spectacularly appropriate, depending on your point of view.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

At Last: MySpace Lets You Categorize Your Friends

So I see that yesterday/today, MySpace finally added the ability for users to categorize their friends:
Does this mean that future MySpace enhancements are dependent on movies that are tangentially related to Judd Apatow?

Functionally, this means that, in addition to creating groups for Friends, Enemies, Cow-Orkers, Work Spouses, Work Spouses With Benefits, etc., you can also create groups for people Who Aren't Actually Your Friends, which is basically everyone you don't know personally: Bands, venues, radio shows, comedians, porn stars, c-list quasi-celebrities and other entities you want to keep track of but are not, strictly speaking, your friends. (This is an important distinction.)

The ability to organize and categorize your friends, I'm sure, ties (in some oblique, opaque, and eminently billable ways) into your social graph. If I hadn't already had 3 (or was it 4?) beers, I'm sure I could do a graphic with some very skillfully annotated concentric circles. And perhaps even an Indexed-style Venn diagram.

However, it reminds me of many, many AOL product Powerpoint presentations that hinged on leveraging "the first and most relevant social network: the Buddy List" -- as a primary driver for success.

At a theoretical level, it made a kind of sense. But (and maybe this was just a function of crappy product execution), I don't know anyone who actually used their Buddy List categories in a way that was fungible to this kind of social network application.

Looking back, it was kind of like trying to apply your landline phone's speed dial to a social network: The metaphor didn't really translate across media. I'm not sure why -- looking at my own online interactions, online presence is very much a key driver of how often I harass my friends.

I will have to think about it some more.

Anyway, the conceit that leveraging the existing AIM/AOL Buddy List network would overcome the many fundamental flaws in product concept and execution, resulted in the titanic thuds that accompanied more than a few launches, some of which were outlined in this week's FastCompany article on AOL, "Dead Man Walking."

[Edit: Boy, it's a good thing Blogger normalizes entry titles by stripping out punctuation -- otherwise, I would have had to live with "Let's" in the title. Oh, the indignity.]

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Friday, March 14, 2008

ELIZA creator dies at 85. Why do you say ELIZA creator dies at 85?

Here I recycle one of my redlit Fark headline submissions (which was covered in a huge way when BoingBoing linked it, but whatever) -- the creator of ELIZA, Joseph Weizenbaum died last week at the age of 85.

For those not in the know, ELIZA was one of the first chatterbots -- she (or it) simulated human agency in conversations by acting as a virtual therapist. (You can see an AIM port version over at AIM ELIZA.)

As chatterbots go, ELIZA was fairly limited -- she had a pretty short set of responses, and more often than not, she would just repeat back what you said to her. But you could still have a fairly robust conversation with her, if you were stupid, distracted, or had a fairly forgiving nature.

In fact, you could say that ELIZA was the precursor to intelligent agents, as well as chat sex bots like Jenny18.

Back when I was working at AOL, I used to joke that ELIZA was more or less indistinguishable from some of our lower-functioning chat room denizens -- and arguably more useful.

While I'm on the subject -- I'm reminded by a situation we ran into with AIM Chats. Now, these days, AIM Chats are promoted group Web chats that are powered by Userplane. But, back in the day, AIM Chats were basically just buddy chat rooms, which were invoked via the URL (http://someAIMURL/chat+room+name).

Because they were promoted at a pretty high level off the AIM.com Web site, they were fairly high trafficked. I don't know if they were ever particularly useful, but they were pretty active.

Then the spam bots took over.

After a short time, you literally had rooms full of IM spam bots (usually sex spam bots) talking to each other. That meant that they were triggering a wall of sex spam IMs -- a bunch of bots talking to each other.

Then, occasionally, some hapless human would wander into the middle of this torrent of sex spam.

It was distressing, yet at the same time, hilarious.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Cognitive Lock-In, in Living Color: The AOL FDO Message Boards

In my feedreader today was an item from Joe Manna in the AIM Social Media Blog (the group blog I spearheaded before I got canned) that AOL is finally retiring its legacy FDO message board interface.

The FDO front-end is the old ("Classic") view of the message boards seen only from inside the proprietary AOL client. It was superseded by the Web board front-end a couple of years ago, though you could still backdoor your way into the FDO view.

And many people did just that -- partially because the Web front-end had some problems, but also because they were simply used to things as they were. And why wouldn't they be? Outside of a back-end transition near the beginning of the millennium, the FDO message board interface was substantially the same as it had been, going back to the early days of the AOL service. It wasn't fancy, but it worked (mostly), it was pretty fast, and most important, people were used to it.

We've Always Done It This Way: Cognitive Lock-In

So, this is a particularly dramatic example of cognitive lock-in (an issue I'd written about in the AIM Social Media Blog last year: THIS SUCKS! Or, Cognitive Lock-In: The Familiar Is Better (Even When It's Not) .

Cognitive lock-in is a fancy term for "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," usually combined with a flavor of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It means that once people learn one way of doing things, they usually prefer it to a newer way, even if the newer way is "better" (by any objective standard -- like it takes 3 steps to do something instead of 5).

Which means that, even if the new product is a lot better, it would still have a couple of strikes against it, simply because people -- especially the stereotypically non-tech savvy AOL users -- were so invested in the old version.

It doesn't help, if, as in this case, the newer Web front-end is not a lot better. It had a lot of problems, dropped a few features, and still lacked many, many features any Web board user-at-large would take for granted (I remember a new internal employee who could not believe that people couldn't edit or delete their own posts.)

Psychology Strikes Again: Emotional Lock-In

So, when change like this happens, people complain. Often and loudly.

You can't expect people to understand the business and technology rationale for doing stuff like this (even if it's valid, which isn't always the case). And sometimes, you just outgrow the product, or the product outgrows you. In cases like these, I often wondered why people didn't just vote with their feet: If things were so bad, why didn't they just... leave?

If you weren't one of those paying customers who needed the dialup, there wouldn't seemingly be a lot to hold you -- there are lots and lots of robust interest communities out on the Web that match or surpass the communities that had developed on AOL, and they've definitely got more features.

This is where psychology comes into play -- especially for long-time community users, there's a sense of ownership and entitlement. For the folks who got to be the old guard, who were the big dogs and got to feel like they owned the joint: If you go to a new community, you're starting over from scratch -- a newbie all over again. If you've already paid your dues, why should you have to do that again? It's a powerful disincentive to leave, so you stay and complain, even beyond the point where it makes any rational sense to an outside observer (there's community in complaint and commiseration, too).

We saw another prominent example of this in the recent Digg algorithm change top user revolt. If you're an outsider, it looks silly and self-important there, too.

So What Can You Do?

You can't not update your products -- that way lies stagnation and the death spiral. The lesson to companies, then, is make sure that when you're making changes that could hit the walls of cognitive and emotional lock-in:
  • Don't do it unless you can make demonstrable, positive improvements with clear benefits you can show regular users (Note: Telling people about the cost-savings you'll realize because you're not trying to support dead or multiple platforms is not a user benefit)
  • Don't just add new features -- Make sure that you don't lose any of the old ones
  • Find user advocates to help evangelize and message the changes
  • Communicate the changes early, incorporate meaningful user feedback, and tell people what you do as you do it.
  • Prepare to take your lumps, because there will always be those folks who hate any kind of change... and in that group, you'll find the folks who won't leave unless they absolutely have to.
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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Get Your Bids in to the AOL Reston Asset Auction

The liquidation auction of the former assets of the AOL Reston offices that I mentioned last week started at 10am and is going on right now.

All the kitchen & cafeteria stuff is sold, but you still have a little time to get at some of the office fixtures if you like.

I'm not going to be bidding on anything -- the few things I was looking priced out of my range quickly. Though I did go to the preview yesterday to take a look, and got a few pictures -- here's the set: AOL Reston Asset Auction Preview, 1/22/08.

I'd only been to the Reston building once or twice, so I didn't really know it. The guy who let us in said that over 100 people had been by looking over stuff, and sources inside AOL say that lots of folks (who used to work in that office) were following online. (Though looking over the sold items now, the same high bidders keep popping up -- most likely not interested individuals, but probably resellers, or property owners.)

The photos of the fixtures aren't much different from in the catalog, so I was mostly just looking for remnants of the AOL presence:
Empty Infrastructure Services cubicle.

Empty Mail Ops Bulletin board -- bid on it here (ends 12:15pm).

Personal Information Data Systems whiteboard. Didn't see it on the auction list.

Turnstile. Not for sale, I just thought the LEDs looked cool.

So that's about it.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

AOL Goes on the Auction Block

Rasmus Auctioneers does asset liquidations when companies move or go bankrupt. I check out their site pretty regularly, though I've never bid in one of their auctions.

This time, however, I may need to make an exception:
URGENT SHORT NOTICE! Inspect Tuesday! Former AOL Offices - 3 Day Auction
Internet Only Auction Bidding Starts Closing 10 AM Wednesday January 23rd.
AOL closed its Reston office and data center a few months ago, so they're liquidating some of the office furniture and cafeteria fixtures:


"URGENT! Super short notice liquidation of 120 offices. Former AOL Reston offices. Designer offices, admin offices, executive seating, modular workstations, conference rooms, break rooms.... Online Monday."


"URGENT! Super short notice liquidation of complete corporate cafeteria. Former AOL building. Super high end equipment. Full compliment of equipment. SHORT NOTICE opportunity!"

A sad-looking cubicle.

Even though Rasmus says they "conducted the majority of dot com liquidations resulting from the “Dot Bomb” in the mid-Atlantic region," I'm not going to draw any larger inferences from this.

Since they're basically down the street from me, I will take a look and see if I can score a chair or something.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Crashing the AOL Prom

I wasn't going to try to crash the AOL Holiday Party -- "The Prom" -- this year. (Hey, I know when I'm not wanted.)

Besides, I understand the need for cost cutting, and even moving from the Air & Space Museum to a venue from an earlier era (Westfields Marriott), but having it on a Monday night, from 6:30 to 9:30? (And "business casual," to boot.) It hardly seemed worth the effort.

But, it was going to be the first one that I missed in over a decade (well, other than the one that Jon Miller canceled in... 2002? to send another cost-cutting message). And, I had a late offer that I couldn't refuse. So I went.

I hadn't been to Westfields in a bunch of years, and the intervening time had seen some new overpasses and developments, including the Sully District police station, where two police officers were killed last year -- it's right down the street.

Despite the evening rush hour traffic, we got there early -- after all, three hours isn't much time to have to worry about lines, parking shuttles, and such nonsense. So we had to wait a bit to get in.

The tree in the lobby was pretty nice:

Things picked up pretty quickly, as these short events tend to do. It wasn't as elaborate as prior years, but it was still pretty nice, and to be honest, I was never a big fan of the stilt walkers, celebrity impersonators, and all that jazz.

I mean, they could have had it on the AOL campus and I don't think anyone would have cared, as long as there was food and an open bar, but I guess there aren't any kickbacks in that. (Note: Any mentions of kickbacks are purely speculative.)

There were a couple of bands. One of them was a country duo:

The bars were plentiful and open, which is always nice. I had to slow down after a couple of drinks -- not because I was worried about making any career-limiting moves (ha), but because I wanted to stay upright.

It was also interesting to see the varying interpretations of "business casual," which ranged from evening gowns, to a few ensembles that were a half-step removed from sweats.

I saw a lot fewer people than I'd hoped -- a Monday night, plus an October and December layoff will probably do that. I saw a few fellow involuntary alumni, some of whom had gotten back in (presumably in moments of weakness or inebriation).

Some folks were surprised to see me (not quite, "Who let you in here?"), though I wouldn't say that anyone was dismayed or horrified to see me.

I have a few people pics that didn't come out very well, and I didn't get a shot of the lady on roller skates handing out blinky rings (she was a big hit), so I mostly ended up taking pictures of the damned tree:

As predicted, they were pretty prompt in getting us out of there at 9:30. Though it took Rover from The Prisoner to get us stragglers out at 10:
"I am not a number! I am a free man!" Seriously, unless you're driving a conversion van, what the hell are you going to do with it?

We hung out in the hotel bar for a while, then moved to the nearby Blue Water Grille to hang out some more.

That's about it, other than to say I was looking at the AOL entry on Wikipedia to look at some dates, and note that some self-promoting clown calling himself "The Untouchable DJ Drastic" seems to have added himself as a "Notable person associated with AOL":

I wouldn't call "Peter Ban" particularly notable, either.

Hey, AOL has come down a lot since its heyday, but I don't think they're quite that low yet. I'd remove it, but I guess I still don't see myself as having a neutral point of view.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Go to a Caps Game, Get a Flu Shot!

I went to the Caps vs. Panthers game on Monday, tickets courtesy of Uncle Ted (Leonsis, natch), who blogged about the game -- a loss -- and acknowledged the fans' unhappiness (as evidenced by the chants of "Fire Hanlon" and "Please Don't Suck.")

Me, I don't care about any of that stuff.

Anyway, as might be expected from a Monday night game on Thanksgiving week, the crowd was pretty thin, even filled out with AOL employees holding complementary tickets.

On the plus side, there wasn't any line if you wanted to get a flu shot:

Our seats were really good -- Section 105, Row L, just behind the goal:

Between periods, one of the AIM product managers, Ryan, was a contestant in the Fan Announcer Challenge:
She won. Funny how that works.

I saw more than a few familiar faces on the big screen and in the stands.

I have to admit, though: I was an ungracious guest -- every time the announcer mentioned AOL, I booed. Loudly (just being playfully contrary, or something):
"The Caps would like to welcome all AOL employees (and ungracious involuntary alumni) for [sic?] tonight's game."

Like I said, the seats were really good. Since we were behind the goal, we had a clear view of four goals. Of course, only 2 of them were Caps goals (we'd started out at RFD and got to the game when it was 1-1). Here's a save:

Afterwards, we hung out at Fado for a bit, where there was a somewhat-resentful trivia night crowd, then packed it in.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

It Started With the Blackwater Wife and the World Gold Cabal

It's been an up and down day today (which, despite whatever time stamp shows, is still Thursday).

I woke up in the middle of a dream confrontation with a blonde cafeteria worker (who I think I'd seen recently guest starring on CSI) who was married to a Blackwater contractor and who was trying to add a $1.75 surcharge to my meal to offset the global conspiracy that's trying to corner the world gold supply.

(Maybe I should send that in as a Ficlet.)

Up and down. Call it a wash.

I was a few minutes late to my session at the outplacement center, which was basically "So You Wanna Set Up a Consulting Business?" I saw a few familiar faces, and it was actually pretty useful. I don't know that I want to go the full-time consulting/contracting racket, but I'm looking at my options. It's been a month since the layoff -- I'm starting to get bored, so I'm trying to actually, you know, look for a job now.


After that, I picked up a few groceries, got home around 1pm, and then... hit the wall. I just could not stay awake. I guess I should have stopped in and got that cup of coffee. I was fading in and out until about an hour ago.


In an update, after being balky yesterday, my new printer seems to be working again. On the one hand, that's good, and on the other hand, it makes me a little nervous -- hardware problems generally don't spontaneously fix themselves. So I'll need to keep an eye on it and decide if I'm going to return it or not.


Lastly, I see that Apple released its last Tiger update. As I still have the Leopard DVD sitting on my desk, I was debating installing it, since I was waiting for the first Tiger update, but lo and behold, it's out today. So no more excuses -- I guess I'll back up my drive and install it tomorrow.


Oh, and my credit card statement arrived yesterday -- I saw a 5 dollar charge from AOL. I'd had AOLbyPhone since forever (hey, freebie for internals) and forgot about it until I saw the charge. So I called to cancel. I think I got the Philippines call center -- the rep was very competent and courteous, and it went smoothly once I spelled my screen name using the military phonetic alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie, etc). I guess I could have tried to get a refund of the last charge, but I decided not to push it.


A few folks are meeting out tonight, and I basically slept through Refresh DC, so I think I'll just stay in and keep a little bit ahead of the game today.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Welcome, You've Got Dammit! 24 in 1994 (Video)

Here's a CollegeHumor.com video that's far funnier than it has any right to be:
24: The Unaired 1994 Pilot (link via TotalFark):

It's a 24 short that portrays the people at CTU trying to do what they do now, except using early 90s technology -- dialup, one-way pagers, pay phones, dot matrix printers (with tractor feed paper), etc.

As a tech user during that era and a former AOL insider, it was especially fun to pick out the anachronisms (though I could not for the life of me remember the term "anachronism" -- unemployment is making me soft).

If you want to get picky, AOL 3.0 didn't come out until 1996 (I was still using 2.5 when I started); Geocities wasn't really Geocities in 1994; they did, you know, have fax machines in 1994; and people were able to get stuff done before online (And even before computers. Or so I heard.)

Oh, and you can see they're using AIM (on a Windows 3.1 machine?) instead of an AOL client -- AIM didn't come out until 1997:


Since I don't even know if you can run AOL 2.5 or 3.0 on a modern machine (I couldn't, the last time I tried -- don't remember if they were ever officially sunset or just allowed to die... assuming you could find an installer -- need an install floppy?), chalk it up to "revealing mistakes."

The references to Lycos, Encarta, and such, as well as a contemporaneous event or two (Nancy Kerrigan, anyone>) were amusing. I got a few chuckles. (But why did the terrorists just disappear?)

College Humor's production values have been pretty good and are getting better all the time. Good job.


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