December 17, 1999 1:20 PM PST

Yahoo tangles with GeoCities volunteer community leaders

Yahoo is facing another uprising among volunteers on its GeoCities community site in a clash that underscores widening cracks between grassroots Internet users and their commercial sponsors.

Earlier this month, Yahoo see related story: Free labor on the Net stopped recruiting volunteer "community leaders" to monitor content and offer advice on GeoCities community home pages. In addition, the company moved a popular community leader bulletin board called "CL Forum" to Yahoo Clubs, a separate service.

Volunteers are up in arms over what they see as a surprise move to curtail the program, which comes in the wake of Yahoo's $2.87 billion acquisition of GeoCities last year.

"They wanted our 'community' but they pretty much have altered it and made it into something else...exactly what they told us they would not do," one community leader wrote in an email lamenting the end of the program.

Representatives from Yahoo said in an interview today that the changes are aimed at giving members more control over the community.

But in distancing itself from the community leader program, the company may be hoping to get some control back itself.

Community leaders have been valued because they lend a helping hand to new users building home pages by offering tips and suggestions. The idea is to give new users a more human way to learn about joining the community in hopes of keeping them on the service.

Although volunteers are good in theory, however, their effect on the bottom line can be difficult to gauge.

According to Jack Staff, an analyst at Zona Research, pulling the plug on the community leader program would make sense if the decision were the result of a cost-cutting measure. "Running and monitoring these programs encompasses or requires a great deal of server space, [and] in many cases there's no discernible payoff," he said.

In addition, although many online companies are experimenting with volunteer work forces, such programs have not always run smoothly.

Internet behemoth America Online's army of volunteers for its proprietary service is the most widely known, given the sheer size of its community leader force. And as AOL will attest, using volunteers can be a tricky proposition.

In May, for example, two former community leaders filed a class action lawsuit against AOL, alleging that the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by using volunteers to perform work for the company. Federal law mandates that a minimum wage be paid to employees.

This lawsuit followed action taken to the Labor Department by some community leaders to examine whether AOL was in violation of any federal laws. The Labor Department has yet to make a conclusion but has said it will examine whether volunteers are considered employees.

GeoCities stated in previous filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission before it was acquired by Yahoo that an "adverse determination in the AOL matter...could materially and adversely affect [Yahoo's and GeoCities'] business and financial results."

Yahoo has clashed with its GeoCities volunteers before.

In June, Yahoo modified its terms of service agreement for GeoCities after homesteaders threatened to boycott the site for its new provision over the ownership of content. Homesteaders flocked to a "Boycottyahoo" site hoping to persuade the portal to withdraw conditions imposed on users before they could change or edit their Yahoo-GeoCities pages.

Protesters also feared that the new conditions would have turned content posted on their site into material for movies or electronic entertainment to which they would have no rights.

The current battle also was sparked by GeoCities community leaders--members who volunteer their time, patrolling the site for violations of its terms of service. That usually means looking out for home pages with offensive material spouting hate, pornography or violence or monitoring chat rooms for unacceptable behavior.

Besides performing watchdog tasks, GeoCities community leaders also helped new Homesteaders with tips for building their sites as well as suggestions to jazz up their pages. In return, Homesteaders received more free disk space for their sites and "GeoPoints"--an incentive credit that can be redeemed to purchase goods in the GeoStore.

The points have become a sore spot with some community leaders.

"As CLs we were promised so many points a month," one community leader wrote in an email. "Now Yahoo is pressuring us to use them." The message went on to complain that Yahoo appears to be backing out of the deal by placing new restrictions on how and where points can be redeemed.

Yahoo denied that it plans to renege on its obligations.

"We are not trying to screw people out of their points," said Yahoo senior director of production Doug Hirsch.

He acknowledged that community leaders may have faced delays in redeeming points because of a temporary shortage of GeoPoint gift certificates. But he stressed that members who have accrued points will not be withheld from cashing them in.

According to Hirsch, this week's changes stem from an ongoing "evolution" of Yahoo's community leader program to give members--dubbed "homesteaders"--more control over their communities. Part of that plan means homesteaders will be able to use home page-building tools that were previously only available to volunteers. But it also means community leaders will no longer be an organization under direct control and guidance from Yahoo.

"We are taking away the application and training process and opening up the tool-set and community process to users," Hirsch said.

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jmdraft@gmail.com
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