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AOL cuts chat police

The online service eliminates the ability to summon live guides to report chat rule violators in all but its "Kids Only" areas.

America Online (AOL) today eliminated the ability to summon live guides to report chat rule violators in all but the "Kids Only" chat areas on the system.

Until today, members had the ability to "page" a guide when they wanted to report someone violating the rules in the chat rooms, AOL's most popular area. Now, however, only chatters in the Kids Only areas will be able to do so. Guides will roam through the remainder of the thousands of chat rooms, but members won't be able to page them.

AOL executives said members in the chat rooms had abused the paging system, flooding guides with routine system questions and deterring them from the jobs they were charged to do.

The company instead is beefing up members' ability to send messages instantly to an area that it says will be staffed full time, a spokeswoman said. "Notify AOL" buttons, already in chat rooms, also will be posted in email and instant messages, said AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose.

But several guides--volunteers or paid staff members who patrol the virtual halls of AOL looking for people who violate the rules by posting profanity, sending pictures, and generally engaging in rude and disruptive behavior--maintain that those messages often go ignored and that sometimes, the only way to snare an unruly member is to page a guide who can catch the person in the act.

They're worried that without live guides to patrol the system and respond immediately to calls, chaos will reign in the chat rooms and AOL's community will deteriorate.

Primrose said AOL is making the move to focus on its younger members. "The guide pagers are going to be totally refocused on the kids' area," she said. "We have put a very high priority on them. We're spending a lot of time looking at our youngest areas to make sure their environment is fun and safe."

In fact, AOL recently told volunteers who work in the Kids Only area that they would have to undergo background checks, and AOL chief executive Steve Case has stated publicly that AOL will do everything it can to make itself safe for children.

Although some guides praised the move, others said AOL should be focusing on the entire chat system rather than just on children.

"Unfortunately, it seems as if kids 12 and under are the only ones on AOL who deserve staffed chat rooms," wrote one on internal message boards reserved for guides.

Another volunteer said the move is more about getting good publicity than creating a good environment for chatters--young and older alike.

"You have to admit, it makes for a great public relations stunt," wrote the volunteer on the internal AOL bulletin board.

One guide pointed out that children don't always limit themselves to the Kids Only areas.

But Primrose said the new system will be more efficient than the old one because someone will be reading messages. Messages sent to "Notify AOL" will be read "24 hours a day, seven days a week" by a team of people who will respond to situations, she said.

But guides say the best way to catch abusers is to witness them in the act, something they could do more easily under the paging system.

Guides will still roam from room to room, but with upwards of 20,000 chat rooms being used every night, the chance of one hitting a chat room while someone is abusing the rules is minimized.

"The members have no way to call on anyone for instantaneous help," said one guide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Now there is no way for anyone to get live assistance online. If there's a problem online--if you've got someone chatting or scrolling--there's no way to get assistance. It's just the luck of the draw."

The guide added that because of the rule that the children's chat rooms be staffed full time, when there aren't enough guides, chat rooms in that area will be shut down.

Instead of eliminating the paging system, the guide said AOL should beef up the guide system to police an ever-expanding community that is increasingly having to deal with unruly members.

Guides have complained for months that AOL has taken away many of the perks they had a year ago, before the online service went to flat-rate pricing. Many have left and morale is low because they feel the area is poorly managed, said David Cassel, an AOL critic who writes a popular email newsletter, AOL Watch.