Terms of Service

Sweaty Scenes From the Life of an AOL Censor

This last prohibition became a real source of contention. Vigilante members resorted to mimicry, adopting names like CAT John for the sake of civilian policing. They wanted to administer online warnings of their own, with authority. Most AOL members didn't take kindly to this sort of horseplay. Neither did members of the CAT Team. Sometimes we canceled such accounts on the spot, only to see them activated again once the cowboy called in and got a stern talking-to.

We mostly left the job of explaining infractions to people on the CAT Team, who delivered the sermon while we sat in silence in our pods, reading complaints. In a pinch, we could always recite the Terms of Service, and we were told to stick by it. These were not personal judgments, after all.

Try telling that to NGGERHATER or THROATSLITR.

Through online chat, people test out their most secret impulses. The segmentation of rooms and sites allows them to find one another like rapists in a prison. Just as playing Dungeons & Dragons doesn't turn a kid into a wizard, pretending to be a homicidal maniac online doesn't make a man a killer. But determining what it does make him is one of the biggest ethical dilemmas facing modern society.

The novelty quickly wore off of even the most unexpected combinations of words in member profiles, like "snatch fangs." Hobbies: "I like a good orange up my ass." Quote: "I'll f:u:c:k for a buck and do something strange for some change." Quote: "Stop changing your lipstick, my dick is starting to look like a rainbow." Quote: "You could drive a truck through my ass crack." The same lines appeared in thousands of profiles, the lack of originality making the task even bleaker. Hobbies: "k-9 sex, violent sex, bondage, anal, anything I'm a sub and I could be dominant too, if you are a sub email me with a fantasy and a slutty pic and I will respond to all I will cyber for anyone who can make me wet." Over and over and over.

Online, people write what they wish they could say to a stranger at a club. They slip the shackle of accountability, set free by a box of unsigned words. They give themselves character traits created by the illusion that this kind of behavior can be carried over into real life without serious consequences. These online provocateurs would remain safe, if only their activities stayed in the realm of make-believe.

But they don't.

Occasionally we received a letter via snail mail, like the following, postmarked from Texas on April 21, 1997:

"Dear American Online,

"Your service that you provide mostly chat rooms is really bad. For one people get scammed, people get raped, people get their lives ruined. Your chat rooms destroyed my life and my marriage. I am broke, getting divorced and am very depressed. I may need professional help and I may never get my life together again."

Some of the mail we received contained descriptions of decapitation and the sexual violence that would be done to our lifeless bodies if we didn't reinstate the account, indicating that some members don't realize their actual identities are attached to their names. All we had to do was look up an account to get the address, name, and phone number of the author.

We were contractually bound to resist using member information. One day a guy from Member Saves, with bumper stickers on his wheelchair and an angel face, could not fight the temptation. A terrified member complained that someone had announced her home address in a chat room. She turned in his screen name, and when management brought up his account, marked "employee," they called him to the boss's office on the spot. By then personal effects were not permitted in pods, so there was no reason for him to return to the call floor. He was gone within minutes.

We received e-mail from parents every day. "You can imagine my son's surprise," I remember one woman writing, "when he searched on basketball and the first profile up had the sentence, 'If I knew it was gonna be that kinda party I woulda sticked my dick in the mashed potatoes.' "

Some people like to cocoon themselves in plastic wrap to crap and screw. Some fathers barter their daughters in exchange for the children of other men. Some women are looking to serve cocktails on their hands and knees at Super Bowl parties, butt plug in place. All of this became the business of our little crew.

One supervisor erred on the side of caution, advising us to flag monikers as jumbled and innocuous as Smotpoker and Fuhq. Ours was not just a struggle against unruly impulses and desires. Names, once they were called to our attention, were picked apart for hidden violations.

My coworker Samantha, married to a cop, was truly stunned by some of what she saw. She stumbled across the Rubber Nun one sunny afternoon, introducing us all to a world of latex habits, gas masks, and torture devices. Felching, which includes two cardinal sins of online sex references, asses and cum, not to mention drinking straws, really knocked her for a loop. Her liberal cancellation of accounts necessitated further training for the team.

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