In internet time, seconds of delay are amplifiedA frenetic, socialistic, and consumer-driven media environment does not rest on the weekend, as Andrew Weinstein, VP of corporate communications at America Online (AOL), found out in March, when his company became embroiled in a blog-driven controversy this month.
AOL, a company that has had many iterations during the internet era and is fighting to regain the dominance it had in the mid-'90s, ran into controversy two weeks ago when its instant messenger (AIM) homepage announced a new terms of service (TOS) agreement. TOSs are almost always written in legalese in order to protect the company. Despite the new announcement on the homepage, it was actually a TOS that had been created on February 5, 2004. With millions of bloggers out there, one was bound to pore through the "new" TOS to find any hints of impropriety.
On March 11, a post on a little-read blog touched off an AOL criticism that fermented under the surface for two days before erupting.
Blogger Ben Stanfield, the proprietor of Thrashing Through Cyberspace, set that chain of events in motion by posting his interpretation of AOL's terms of service. Stanfield asserted that the company reserved the right to monitor and republish IM conversations at its discretion, based on the wording.
He wrote: "That AOL even thinks it's OK for them to collect these millions of intimate personal conversations is bad enough, but that they grant themselves the right to broadly use such material is simply not acceptable."
Stanfield, who did not return a request for comment, saw his traffic explode from a self-described 20 hits a day to over 50,000 visitors over that weekend. That initial post itself had 67 trackbacks, which is a way to show who is linking to a particular entry, and featured 54 comments, one of which eventually came from Weinstein two days later, after the story had blown up.
Soon the news had spread throughout the web, reaching popular weigh stations like Slashdot. That turned it into what some call a meme, where more people pick up the thread, add their opinions or a bit of reporting, and push it out further. At this point, it becomes much more difficult for a PR professional to respond to, and contain the story.
A fellow blogger, Greg Yardley, who feels the debate was unnecessary, wrote that the furor was easy to spread because it involved the following themes: a whistleblower, a villainous corporation, a nefarious plan, a clear "good vs. evil" storyline, and opportunities for collective action.
Throughout the situation, AOL maintained that the policy was obfuscated by legalese, and that it was only letting the user know that content they post in a public area can be seen and used for different purposes by other AOL users, and that instant messages have always remained private. Since the TOS was more than a year old and the company wasn't monitoring personal conversations, Weinstein did not feel it merited a story. However, Weinstein understands the allure of the meme.
"It was an incredibly sensitive issue: a product used by 25 million people, used by a group that tends to write blogs, erupted on a weekend when it was difficult to notice and gather the facts quickly, and it played into the perceptions that major companies might be sneaky," Weinstein says.
Despite the hassles of responding to multiple blogs, Weinstein also maintains that the bloggers were doing their jobs, as consumers, to question the companies they have an interest in.
"There's speculation that bloggers are doing something wrong by covering stories from a consumer perspective," Weinstein says, instead of from an objective perspective. "But bloggers are consumers, and are justified in covering products and experiences from their specific point of view."
Weinstein recollects that John Buckley, AOL's EVP of corporate communications, was the first to notice the controversy brewing on Sunday morning.
Buckley realized a story was building, so he began contacting top executives at the company to get the facts.
When Buckley confirmed with executives that the policy had not changed, he began contacting Weinstein, who was unavailable because he was flying from a wedding from Boston to Washington, DC. His unavailability, compounded with the fact it was the weekend, made responding even harder.
"If this was a weekday, we would have been able to reach out in a matter of a couple of hours," Weinstein says.
Once he was apprised of the situation, Weinstein began reaching out to reporters and bloggers after his plane arrived at 3pm on Sunday.
To set the record straight, Weinstein posted comments on blogs and reached out to the few reporters that had covered it by Sunday. The effort, according to Weinstein, was a matter of e-mailing numerous bloggers.
Weinstein wrote a lengthy rebuttal in Stanfield's comments section, which began, "The rumors flying around the blogosphere about the AIM Terms of Service are totally false."
One mainstream news publication, eWeek, wrote a story on the controversy for its website on Saturday night after Ryan Naraine, senior writer at eWeek.com and author of the story, sent e-mails and made calls to the company without receiving a response. The Drudge Report subsequently picked up the story, which turned it from a tech-community story to a consumer-wide story.
"If it's a story that inflammatory, [the writer] should include the company," Weinstein says.
Weinstein contacted Naraine on Sunday night to give AOL's side, but the updated story with Weinstein's comments didn't run until Monday morning. The unique nature of the internet was that while blogs were updating their posts to include AOL's comments, the less-nimble mainstream publication, which was arguably receiving a large percentage of the traffic due to the Drudge link, did not have AOL's take on the matter.
"We're guilty of not getting the update up," Naraine says, which was due the unavailability of copy editor based on a glitch in eWeek's internal procedures.
But Naraine disagrees with Weinstein's opinion that the company was treated unfairly. He says that since blogs were beginning to comment on it, the story was already out there and it was the publication's duty to cover it.
On Monday, after all the publications and blogs posted Weinstein's comment, some of which offered point-by-point contentions to the company's stance, the executives at AOL huddled to determine the company's best course of action, and decided to change the TOS. AOL changed its TOS to make clear the right to reproduce is limited to the public areas of the service, such as its "Rate-A-Buddy" feature. By late Monday, the company reached out to the media, alerting them of the change, and the clarified TOS was posted early Tuesday.
After C-Net ran the story that AOL had altered its TOS, Stanfield ran the headline "Tonight, A Victory" on his Thrashing Through Cyberspace site.
"If AOL has modified the language, then it was a legitimate story," Naraine says. "The quibble that [the TOS] was not new doesn't mean it's not a privacy issue.
Upon reflection, Weinstein says, "Although the terms of service were clear legally, it was 'inartfully' worded, so we made an internal decision to clarify what was said. It's a positive statement for what a company like AOL can do to rapidly address concerns. It would have taken [other firms] a month or more to change internal policy."
Weinstein says that this incident is just the reality of how communications works today.
"AOL has been a visible company and active in the space of blogging and real-time communications, but this is one of the first times AOL has been [on the receiving end], trying to respond to rumors [on blogs] that were not accurate," Weinstein says. "There is no down time in media; you have to be in constant contact around the clock and on the weekend. You have to respond equally fast with the right information and right decisions."