An AOL Watch Reader reports the following...

AOL Dumbs Down Interface

In what seems to be another attempt to thwart online pranksters, America Online today altered its "Locate Member Online" feature, disabling functionality to save face.

Locate, which is an integral part of the Buddy List capabilities on America Online, is a feature through which AOL members can determine whether or not other members are currently logged in and using the service. Providing members with feedback as to what chat room another user is in, Locate simplifies the process of sending an Instant Message to the user, or even joining them in the chat with the click of a button.

The Locate system is accessible through AOL's internal URLs (aol://), allowing members to create hyperlinks to locate their friends. Links to URLs such as aol://3548:SteveCase became popular, because they gave simplistic access to Locate. Instead of opening the Locate window and entering a screen name each time they want to search for someone, members simply created a "Favorite Place" link using the URL aol://3548:ScreenName.

Online jokers, however, had other uses for the links; and quickly figured out how to take advantage of the feature. Hackers and pranksters discovered that the text string contained in the URL did not necessarily have to be a screen name - it could be any combination of words. This led to links which, when clicked, would display obscene messages such as "Steve Case is gay and is not currently signed on" (aol://3548:Steve Case is gay and) or "Yo' momma's so fat she is not currently signed on" (aol://3548:Yo' momma's so fat she). As these links became more and more widespread, AOL clearly feared ridicule; and perhaps in a panic, made changes to the Locate system.

In the past, when a user tried to locate someone who was not logged in, they would receive a message indicating that "[Screen Name] is not currently signed on." Now, attempts to locate users who are not online result in the generic message, "Member is not currently signed on." Gone is the screen name, and thus, gone is the ability to manipulate the error message.

AOL users have mixed reactions to the changes. One member, when asked her feelings on the alterations to Locate, said "how do they expect us to have any fun?" Another user wondered whether or not AOL had a sense of humor. Only one member surveyed thought the changes were a good idea. "It was getting annoying haveing links to Your mama is sucking dick and is not signed on, in my mail."

In an age where AOL seems to be shifting its focus from interactivity to broadcast, this may be just another baby step along the path. Censoring its users is nothing new for AOL, and now it moves to hampering their creativity. Perhaps it can be summed up best by the first respondant to our survey: "People are just playing around," the message read, "and AOL has to go ruin it!!!"