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At its peak, one-fourth of all user hours were spent in chat - and those hours generated tons of money.
Put a popular remote staffer in a chat room with 22 other people for an hour and - boom! All that chat added up: According to some estimates, by 1996 the service's non-sex chat was pulling in at least million a month with the help of 33,000 volunteers.
And what in the world did AOL do to anger this posse?
As much as the lawsuit's outcome will set a precedent for compensating online labor in the future, it offers a window into the weird and wacky world of cyber-codependence - right at the intersection between corporate and personal identity."I'm torn by the lawsuit," says Nancy, who is typical of the dozen CLs interviewed for this story.
"I was democratically elected the admiral of a role-playing group," says Ellen, a former volunteer manager and current CL. Kit, a CL who still gives AOL 60-hour weeks, turned a tiny forum of merely 50 folders into a bustling metropolis with 1,000 folders and 50 volunteers reporting to him.
Asked about his motivation, the CL replies, "It's vanity.
Frequent users and role players like Nancy spent as much as 0 per month online.
"It's like a bad relationship I can't get out of."Nancy, like the other CLs, doesn't want her real name used because she fears that AOL will kick her off the system and she'll lose her online identity.
On the one hand, she'd like to get paid for her work; on the other, she doesn't want to lose her volunteer position.
Keep her talking, though, and Nancy starts to sound less like a disgruntled employee and more like a battered wife.
"In reality I'm a disabled fat woman," she says.
"But online I'm really well respected." After six years of helping build AOL's corporate identity, Nancy finds that she doesn't even own her screen name.
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At first, AOL didn't seem to know what to do with the remaining volunteers - whether to keep them or let them go.