With a single e-mail Friday, America Online sent a wave of surprise and anger through its biggest youth fan base--about 450 AOL volunteers under age 18--by firing them.
The volunteers, many of whom went through 30-some hours of training, spend hours every week on such jobs as monitoring chat rooms for improper language and answering questions from fellow AOL users. AOL contends that it wants people who are more mature in these functions.
"AOL has decided to limit eligibility in the Community Leaders Program to AOL members 18 years of age and older," says the July 22 e-mail signed by Berl Jones, senior manager of AOL's Community Leaders Organization.
Since its inception, AOL--like many online services--has used volunteers to watch discussion groups, answer questions and alert staff to potential problems. In return, the volunteers receive a free account and sometimes access to areas not open to the public. AOL says it has 14,000 of these "community leader" volunteers.