Alex Blaze

AOL sucks: QueerSighted edition

Filed By Alex Blaze | November 19, 2007 12:47 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, The Movement
Tags: AOL, blogging, censorship, Dinesh D'Souza, QueerSighted, Richard Rothstein

AOL killed QueerSighted, their queer group blog. Says former contributor Richard Rothstein:

And so QueerSighted was born, a diverse community of queer writers that would evolve and grow and within six short months draw more than 3.5 million page views per month. QueerSighted would pull in serious advertising revenue, and just before it's demise--yes demise--QueerSighted would find itself within weeks of being able to lay claim to the honor of largest non-porn gay website in the world. In fact, weeks before AOL killed QueerSighted, the blog was already in a photo finish race with Gay.com and Logo On Line for the number one spot.[...]

But at the end of the day, this hugely and almost instantly successful venture that had quickly established its brand-building and financial worth to the corporation was abruptly canceled. No warning and no reason other than we "were just one of the causalities of a corporate cost-cutting process."

You may remember how AOL sucks for letting their "political" bloggers post violent homophobia. Evidently a pro-gay blog was too much for them.

More after the jump.

Honestly, while all of the QueerSighted contributors I had the pleasure of interacting with were lovely and intelligent people, I never really got into that site. Corporate blogs just aren't my thing - blogging is first and foremost a way of bucking the system, a way to speak out to anyone with internet access without being filtered by anyone's sensibilities who aren't willing to directly engage you. It connects, deconstructs borders within and between texts, and decenters those loci of power that try to control all communications. Queersighted was, first and foremost, a piece of AOL/Time-Warner, meaning that it would always have to respond to interests outside of those of contributors and loyal readers.

We've run into issues here at the Project with a few people who help out who aren't quite up on just what blogging is. It's not journalism, and Bil and I exercise almost no editorial control over the contributors. We very rarely pull comments from this site, much less than the blogosphere does in general.

But that messiness is anathema to corporations that are used to controlling their message as part of day-to-day operations necessary for stock-holder profit and corporate survival. To have a bunch of bloggers, much less unknown commenters who can be anyone in the world, saying whatever they want on corporate property is scary to people who think that they might be and might actually be liable for what some random joe or jane thinks about one of their advertisers.

That said, we don't really know why AOL decided to cut the blog. Queersighted was immensely popular and growing everyday. Richard continues:

Was there some other reason? And was the deletion of QueerSighted bundled into a general "layoff" to hide some ugly truth? Were our politics too far to the left of certain senior officers at AOL? Was AOL receiving threats from it's large Evangelical and Right wing readership that used to entertain itself by flaming our site? I guess we'll never know and the worst thing we can say about AOL is that they lied about their commitment to the GLBT community and Kenny Hill and just swept us and him away as part of some mindless, heartless corporate housecleaning exercise.

We'll probably never know the real reason, but AOL did end their elections blog, The Stump, back in October. And it was definitely conservatively-biased. But there really aren't enough across-the-board cuts to really say that this is part of a massive downsizing, and Queersighted's growth and popularity make you wonder why they'd pull it. If anyone should be pulled from an AOL blog, it's the homophobic, jingoist, professionally irresponsible Dinesh D'Souza, but that's another post for another time.

In the end, I doubt any corporation really wants a bunch of outspoken queers being part of their public face. AOL did put the whole thing together, but they're caving to someone now, and since there are so many someones who'd have a problem with their project, it's impossible to point the finger. Pam speculates on the specifics of QueerSighted's politics and AOL's corporate interests:

The brilliance that corporate drones may admire on a personal blog may not translate well as a corporate voice. Did that happen at Queersighted when the political commentary got hot in regards to AOL exec Mary Cheney or criticism of conservative bloggers on AOL's roster? Who knows. What I can easily imagine happening, as a corporate butt-covering maneuver, is that it is easier on the PR front to shut down the whole site and say it's part of downsizing rather than deal with any potential criticism as a result of canning or censoring individual posts, bloggers or editorial decisions. I doubt we'll ever find out what happened.

Yeppers.

It definitely meant something that AOL would put this together, but, then again, they shouldn't have made promises they can't keep.


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I think the title of your post says it all: AOL Sucks!

Richard and I chat regularly over e-mail and I simply adore Kenneth Hill, another acquaintance via blogging. To think that they were given the shaft for picking on poor old Mary Cheney is no stretch to my imagination.

I originally got the handle of bilerico when I signed up for AOL. After a few years of battling the service over this or that - including a year spent working for them - I have to say that this is something I can totally see them being disingenuous about. After all, you should never trust a corporation that hires Mary Cheney for a high level position. If that doesn't say they prefer people who will fuck over anyone just to get ahead, what does?

So true that it's better to build something outside of the established corporate umbrella!

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 19, 2007 3:49 PM

that messiness is anathema to corporations that are used to controlling their message as part of day-to-day operations necessary for stock-holder profit and corporate survival.

You said it!!

Corporations are all about control, to the point that many (most?) would rather enforce a bland level of mediocrity throughout the workplace than risk opening the door to genuine creativity. I worry about the stifling effect on workers' spirits and private lives, their willingness to engage in politics and activism as corporations gain more and more power over and access into their employees' lives. The company I work for would never have hired me had they thought to google me beforehand--a mistake the HR department won't make again with future employees.

If y'all remember AOL from the olden days of the internet where only the geeks chatted on IRC and BBSs whereas you had to get on AOL or compuserve to actually meet other people, AOL was always quite hostile to the M4M rooms and in reacting to the trolls and harassing busy-bodies that would pop in there.

Thank baby jebus that the web effectively killed off the need to rely on AOL. I can't wait till Time Warner gets a clue and shuts down AOL for good.

It needed quite a bit of persuasion but after all that and almost a year of blogging silence queersighted is back. Maybe not yet in full force but at least we are up and running. Big change is the fact that the site is no longer managed in the US but in the UK

AOL's Tunneling Conundrum

Last week, while the rest of the nation endured the last of the election frenzy, AT&T Broadband quietly fired up its "broadband choice" tests in its Boulder, Colo. system. Time Warner Cable quietly continued testing what it calls "multiple ISP" ("MISP") access in Columbus, Ohio. To the north, Canadian MSO Rogers Cablesystems continued monitoring a two-year-old government mandate for the same thing, which they call "third party residential internet access," or "TPRIA."

The four labels - open access, broadband choice, MISP, TPRIA - all mean the same thing: Letting outside Internet service providers (ISPs) offer a faster connection to their customers by riding on cable's swift lines.

Meanwhile, federal antitrust watchdogs gave the issue another vigorous shake last week, saying they'll block Time Warner's merger with America Online if the two don't formalize and expand their open access plans. In defense, Time Warner and AOL told the Federal Trade Commission that they'll stunt a potential AOL head start by not letting the online giant ride Time Warner's broadband plant until at least one other competing ISP is there, too. In Columbus, that entity is to be Juno.

Ironically, AOL may need the head start. As it turns out, the way AOL architected its 25 million-plus subscriber network isn't exactly a natural for a cable environment.

Why: AOL uses a method called "tunnelling" to connect each of its customers' PCs to its web of servers. Technically, tunnelling is a protocol. A protocol is a language spoken by electronic bits travelling along a network.

Here's how it works: When a customer logs in to AOL, a secret tunnel is instantly built between that PC, and the AOL network. Not only is each data packet encrypted (as is cable modem traffic). Each packet is also encapsulated. Encapsulation is the electronic equivalent of the plain, brown wrapper. The only visible parts are the packet's source (who am I?) and its destination (where am I going?). Everything else is tucked inside the tunnel.

In AOL, all traffic moves in tunnelsl: E-mail, instant messages, chat, Web page requests. Say you point your AOL browser to multichannel.com. The packets comprising your request are encypted at your PC, encapsulated, and sent to an AOL server. That server says, "ah, I see a request for multichannel.com particular web site from so-and-so." It fetches the page, encrypts it, encapsulates it, and tunnels it back to you. You never directly ping the multichannel server.

By contrast, the data packets that move to and from cable modems are encrypted, but not encapsulated.

This isn't so much of a big deal in cable's current ISP tests. Because there's so many other components that need to be created, and because the service goal is limited to Internet access, AOL's tunnels aren't the end of the world.

However, when "broadband choice" evolves to mean multiple ISPs providing multiple IP services over cable's plant - think Internet, plus voice, plus streaming services, for example -- AOL's tunnels could become a problem.

DOCSIS 1.1-based cable modems, which enter the market next year, bring the ability to do more than just speedy Web surfing. MSOs can mark packets as higher priority if, for example, they comprise a phone call. Or, the packets can be nailed up to a consistent bit rate for a period of time, say, for a streaming event.

But if AOL's traffic rides in a secret tunnel from the home to its servers, how do cable providers see and pluck off the prioritized traffic? Think about what this means for things like local content, multicast events, or IP phone calls. In a tunnelled environment, accessing local stuff flings the request for it back to AOL, which then fetches it. It's travelling the shape of a hairpin, instead of a hyphen. Ditto for a local, IP phone call. Phoning your neighbor on a future IP cable phone means sending the dialed digits through AOL's tunnel, to AOL, in Virginia. There, AOL disassembles the tunnel, sees the IP voice bits, and presumably sets up the call. The words "complicated" and "inefficient" come to mind.

There are workarounds, of course. One option is to tear down the AOL tunnel at the headend, extract any prioritized traffic, and make it do what it's intended to do. Requirement: More headend stuff. Another option is to give all AOL packets a high priority. Result: Inefficient bandwidth usage.

For now, this is more of a problem for AOL than it is for cable MSOs. The matter of AOL's tunnels isn't likely to land on the FTC's to-do list, either: If anything, it hurts AOL more than it hurts outside ISPs. But it's worth watching, and watching carefully, if for no other reason than AOL's presumed spot at the helm of the No. 2 U.S. cable operator.

Consider: There are at least five things that don't yet exist, but are critical for a multiple ISP environment. Necessity being the mother of invention, AT&T and Time Warner (and any other MSO wishing to test multiple ISPs) are building these five things themselves.

First is the screen that shows customers which ISPs they can pick. AT&T calls this a "service agent." Second, there's the traffic cop - the software that tracks which ISP is using how much bandwidth. Technologists call this a "mediation engine," and view it as a way for MSOs and ISPs to color within the lines of the service agreements they forge with one another.

Third, there's those ever-snarly billing links. Look at it logistically. Ten ISPs could mean 10 different billing systems; 10 different billing systems means 10 different required interfaces. MSOs will need to take the information tracked by the mediation engine (the traffic cop), and mete it out in an electronic format that the various ISPs' billing systems can use.

Fourth, there's trouble-shooting and conflict resolution. Say an AT&T Broadband customer, using AOL's service, can't access mail. Is it AT&T's network, or AOL's mail server? Who fields the call? Who fixes it? Who lets that end customer know what's wrong, and when it'll be corrected?

And lastly, there's a specific equipment need. It's known interchangeably in technical circles as a "source-based router" and a "policy-based router." It's needed because today's cable modem traffic only knows one thing: Where it's going. The destination. But, in order for MSOs to know which customer is connected to which ISP, the source of the packet becomes a necessity. This router sits at the Internet-end of the CMTS (cable modem termination system, the headend piece of cable modem networks).

Cable's work to pry open their own networks, without donning a "common carrier" label, is perhaps the year's most significant bit of technical pioneering.

(The use of source-based routing may come into question if the AOL/Time Warner merger proceeds. AOL's dial-up network uses an alternative method to source-based routing, known as "tunneling." Although Time Warner's trial work will use source-based routers, it's likely that AOL will have something to say in the matter. Source-based and tunneled routing methods aren't mutually exclusive, but using both could require extra equipment, and could limit AOL's ability to offer services other than high-speed data.)

This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.

Submitted by Tony Casillo, www.typewriterdepot.com