Emerging Sources of Labor on the Internet: The Case of America Online Volunteers

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Citation: Hector Postigo (2003) Emerging Sources of Labor on the Internet: The Case of America Online Volunteers. International Review of Social History (RSS)

doi: 10.1177/1367877909337858 doi: 10.1177/1367877909337858

Download: http://ics.sagepub.com/content/12/5/451.refs.html

Tagged: Sociology (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), digital labor (RSS), immaterial labor (RSS), post-fordism (RSS), postindustrial (RSS), community managers (RSS), volunteers (RSS), AOL (RSS), professionalization (RSS), history (RSS)


Is volunteering online any different from work? In a mid-90s case study of AOL volunteers, Hector Postigo argues that companies/platforms can attempt to control volunteers and extract value from cultural labor online like they control workers, while trying to avoid the responsibilities of companies towards their employees. Postigo situates his research on the nature of work online with wider discussions of post-industrialism.

Postigo opens with the story of AOL in 1995, where tends of thousands of remote volunteers monitored bulletin boards, managed chat rooms, enforced Terms of Service, welcomed newcomers, and created content/code for AOL. Many of these volunteers had access to high privilege systems within the company, and were given credit hours applied to their AOL bill or an "overhead" account worth 20 dollars (contirbutor notes: these details were unclear; filled in from Postigo 2009). In 1995, when the company attempted to shift away from overhead accounts to unbilled or discounted accounts with fewer privileges, volunteers threatened to strike. Those volunteers were quickly let go and only allowed to return after probation.


To research this piece, Postigo gathered information from www.observers.net, a no-longer active website (which has been removed from or never crawled by the Internet Archive) that was "founded by a number of ex-volunteers, some of whom are suing AOL for back wages." The site included AOL documents leaked to the Internet.

AOL and Its Volunteers

Before the strike, argues Postigo, AOL was well liked by its users, many of whom had been using it even before it changed its name to AOL in 1989. The company did not set out to create a volunteer organization, but it found that volunteers were needed to maintain communities [1]. These early volunteers focused on socializing newcomers to the service and hosting conversations (208-9).

Why did volunteers participate? Volunteers received 2 hours of credit for every volunteered hour, and many volunteers helped out to keep their costs down. Others participated in hopes of learning skills that would lead to employment in the tech sector. Others were motivated by individual friendships, kinship groups, or a sense of common good. Volunteers even tracked their family tree of mentorship relationships (209).

AOL, who called these volunteers "remote staff," and Postigo argues that some thought of themselves that way. When AOL attempted to convert from discounts proportional to servie to a flat discounted rate for volunteers, it was one more pressure on top of restructuring to accomodate membership rates that exceeded capacity and a lawsuit from a former volunteer (210). This volunteer was demanding roughly $600 in return for his work. The company considered: (a) restructure volunteers to be independent contractors (b) outsource the labor to a third party, (c) hire remote staff. AOL's response was to hire some volunteers and create a proxy company to handle volunteers, calling them "community leaders" rather than "remote staff" (211). The company expanded its control of volunteers by removing their ability to design AOL content, removing their ability to code but retaining their ability to create and moderate content (212). The company also removed the means of volunteers to see a list of other workers or communicate with each other for non-official purposes, resulting in a situation where no one would know when a community leader was "fired" by the company (213). One outcome of this policy was to disrupt social capital among volunteers.

Postigo describes the dangerous effects of this restructuring for people experiencing harassment online. Volunteers were formally discouraged from taking action to expect users for Terms of Service violations, so customers had to email the TOS department, emails that were largely ignored (215).

The company's goals, especially during an unfolding lawsuit were to "keep them [volunteers] out of the newspapers, out of the courtrooms, and get as much out of them as you can" (qtd in 214). Furthermore, since the AOL staff liasing with community leaders were part of a separate company, they were not taken seriously by their parent company. Overall, AOL was able to move volunteers at a greater arms length while also exercising more control on their labor, via changes in policy and software.

Postigo speculates that this move towards control led community leaders to recognize their labor as exploitative work for AOL, not volunteerism or an opportunity to skill up. In 1999, ex-volunteers filed a class-action lawsuit against the company under the Fair Labor Standards Act, arguing that the 15,000 volunteers should have been classed as employees and paid a minimum wage.


In this section, Postigo puts this story in context, linking it with work by Tiziana Terranova on Free Labor[2] and offering AOL as a case study for "how the labor-exploitative relationship developed... between free-content providers[like the volunteers] and commercial interests [e.g. AOL]" as companies attempt to "extract as much value as possible"(Terranova qtd in Postigo) (218).


In contrast with Terranova, who dismissed AOL volunteers as powerless, Postigo makes an argument about peripheral participation in opposition to AOL; while only some volunteers filed a lawsuit, "many more were frequenting sites such as Observers.net, posting stories about their fallout with AOL" and since Terranova's article, more lawsuits had been started in several other states (219-20)

Staking out an occupation

Postigo also describes the AOL volunteers as "occupation pioneers":

the case of AOL community leaders is a classic study of the process by which an occupation is born from unpaid work. At an early level of development, an occupation lacks the institutional and social recognition that helps the early "occupational pioneers" [to] convince society that they are worthy of compensation. The problem is compounded when the services they provide are tasks that are generally perceived to be the work of families and communities, or hobbies and leisure. At the core of this difficulty are ideological perceptions of the relationships between those who do care-taking work, such as creating communities, the service itself, and the recipients of the service (220)

Postigo relates the professionalization of volunteer work online to the history of women's labor, where women's labor was "pastoralized" and turned into an idea of uncompensated leisure[3]. Postigo argues:

American society continues to see volunteer work of the kind that generates and maintains communities (both on and offline) as market inalienable, as a noble and altruistic pursuit, even as companies like AOL commodify community (221)


Postigo concludes by reflecting on the tensions that exist between company imperatives and the interests of a "self-organizing, harnessable labor force" who may resist "attempts to bend the collective intelligence of the Internet to the will of corporate organization" (223). Companies relying on this intelligence need those communities and "yet must avoid the alienating control structures" of large corporations. Postigo argues that the AOL volunteer lawsuit offers an example of "the possibility of breaking out of the 'social factory' and making visible the new sources of value in an emerging media world" (223)

Theoretical and practical relevance:

The case of AOL volunteer lawsuits offers a very revealing perspective into the kinds of community/relational labor online we consider compensatable, and the way that one company attempted to capitalize on that volunteer labor. Postigo does an excellent job of fitting that case in context and explaining its broader implications.

Notable References

  1. Swisher, K. (1998). AOL. COM: how Steve Case beat Bill Gates, nailed the netheads, and made millions in the war for the Web. Random House Inc..
  2. Terranova, Tiziana. 2000. “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Social Text 18 (2): 33–58.
  3. Boydston, J. (1990). Home and Work: Housework. Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (New York, 1990), 80.