Living in the world of Facebook, LinkedIn and the many other online communities and social networking sites on the Internet today, it is hard to imagine that a mere 20 years ago, almost no such sites existed. Community building in those days often occurred within the services offered by America Online and competing programs long forgotten: CompuServe, Prodigy and others. These providers offered live chats, bulletin boards and more, as ways of building online communities. By today’s standards, they were rather primitive. But without these early efforts, their successors could not have built today’s more robust online communities.
While I am fuzzy about the dates, I vividly remember my friend Joel Lurie Grishaver coming up to me at a Jewish educators conference around twenty years back and saying: Arnie, the future is going to be online. And I’m passing your name along to the person who is going to lead the Jewish online work of America Online. Weeks later, Marc Klein, publisher of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, called me and invited me to be a community leader of Jewish Community Online, the Jewish area of AOL. Over a few years, I was fortunate enough to be one of a team of rabbis in an “Ask The Rabbi” area of AOL, led the first online Tu B’Shevat Seder (albeit without the ability to send food through my modem), and moderated dozens of Jewish chats and classes. We were among thousands of pioneers, who volunteered at no salary, to help AOL and other corporations create a new world of online communities.
Over the years, the community leader program that AOL had went through major overhauls, Jewish Community Online was phased out, and I (and many others) decided not to continue as a community leader. As far as I knew, the story was to end there.
Turns out that it didn’t. In 1999, two community leaders filed a class action suit on behalf of all AOL community leaders. Since all of us had gone through training, were accountable to AOL, and were, for all practical purposes, working for AOL, they claimed that under the Fair Labor Standards Act, we were all entitled to back wages. If I was even aware that this was happening, I pretty much ignored it. Same thing when, a number of months ago, I received a notice that I would be included in the class action. After all, many of us receive these types of legal notices frequently. Sometimes there’s a settlement, sometimes not.
Today, to my absolute astonishment, I received a check that represents my small part of a $15,000,000 settlement paid by AOL to thousands of volunteer community leaders, each of whom was a pioneer in the early days of online community. The check was not an amount that will put me on easy street for the rest of my days. But it is a long overdue symbol of appreciation for those of us who spent countless hours and days experimenting and building the experience that would eventually lead to the vibrant online communities that exist today.