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Sweaty Scenes From the Life of an AOL Censor

Erika quickly became our leader. She showed up for work every day wearing clothes embroidered with the company logo, ecstatic at the opportunity to work for America Online. She spent hours chatting with other people who had autistic children or loved Def Leppard, and she followed the company line. AOL provided a lot of incentive to do so, given the high rate of promotion. Fellow trainees with nose rings and shaggy hair turned into clean-cut corporate executives as soon as the keys to the new Jeep hit their palms.

Juan had a fuzzy moustache, a blond girlfriend, and a yellow Camaro. He didn't take the job too seriously; he was just tired of working the oil rig. He did what he had to do and didn't get too involved in disputes with people furious over the loss of their online identity.

When DrEnema was warned for his name, we engaged in a battle that lasted several days. He was an actual doctor and stated in his profile that he administered "sadistic enemas to men, women, and children." We couldn't have a kid going into this guy's office for a stubbed toe, leaving with a butt full of coffee beans. Cases like his blurred the border between fantasy and reality. His was not the only one.

"There is a simple explanation for why this happens," says a supervisor at America Online who does not wish to be identified. "People are able to completely transcend what they are in real life and live a different life entirely.

"This is such a paradoxical time right now. It is the age of information and the age of misinformation. There was a time when people thought that something printed in a newspaper must be true. It's not like that online, but it almost is. You go through an urge when you see a screen name and a profile and you immediately think, oh, it must be true, but then you realize that it's just words, and that anybody can say anything at all."

Ours was one team at America Online, but there are others, monitoring violations in e-mail, on member Web sites, and throughout the company's staple, instant messages. America Online is no longer a string of call centers against lonely backdrops like the Sandia Mountains. AOL/Time Warner, setting up shop now in New York City, has access to nearly every line of communication in and out of our homes.

The gravity and absurdity of the situation became clear when, having answered every complaint in the box, I took a call. A woman frantically explained her catastrophe. Her young son had been chatting online, and when she went to get him for dinner, she found his room empty. A last instant message was posted on the screen: "See you soon, can't wait." She begged me for the name and address of the person behind the dangling screen name. I had the information right in front of me, but I couldn't give it to her.

My heart flipped in my chest. What had started as a job wide with possibilities had narrowed to a pinhole through which I could see the messy corners and anguished moments of so many ordinary lives. I had the power to protect her, or at least to help—a mission my employer had made clear. Yet here the interests of customer and corporation collided.

I put her on hold and sought the supervisor's advice. There were no options. Only a subpoena warranted release of that name. According to the rules, he was right. And I had to tell her, in turn, as firmly as I could, that I could be of no assistance in the matter. She grew tired of pleading and slammed the phone back in the cradle. I like to believe her child came waltzing home, arms full of roses, within moments of that call. I like to believe it.

Even now, I understand that America Online is no more responsible for a stranger getting in than the phone company is when a latchkey kid answers a call from the creep across the street. But if there is anything more alluring to a developing mind than a blank slate on which to etch the symbols of adulthood, I can't imagine what it is.

I left AOL within days of that call, unable to shake what I'd learned: From a strictly evolutionary perspective, the eggs that hatch online, in the imagination, grow wings and claws behind the closed doors of real houses.

*Names have been changed.

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