The jokes and complaints flash across the Internet, in discussions about everything from recreational aircraft to the music of a Canadian band called Moxy Fruvous. The subject: the company the tech world loves to hate.

Microsoft?

Nope. America Online.

If AOL was a car, it would be a Ford Pinto, reads one entry in a long thread of AOL-as-car jokes.

If AOL was a car, I think it would be one of those big old flashy Cadillacs with the tail fins and chrome and all. Unfortunately, it would have a busted VW engine. :-)

If AOL was a car, you'd have to take the bus.

Like just about every major company these days, AOL has become the subject of a number of attack pages that have sprung up on the World Wide Web and in online forums such as those that make up Usenet. As the biggest online service provider, AOL is a fat target for the anti-establishment Zeitgeist that flavors much of the global medium. Look up the words "I hate AOL" at Deja.com, a Web site that scours the Internet's thousands of ongoing discussions, and you'll find about 500 entries that include the phrase. "AOL sucks": 1,600.

They belittle the 21 million-plus-customer giant, arguing that the service dumbs down the Internet and turns the online adventure into a visit to the mall. They bristle at the service's insistence they watch their language in online chats--and get "TOS'ed" out for violating the AOL "Terms of Service" agreement. "Customer service," they gripe, is a misnomer of the magnitude of George Orwell's "1984," in which the propaganda offices were named the "Ministry of Truth."

"People despise AOL for lots of reasons," said Scott Rhodes, a media critic who writes about the Internet. Rhodes said the bottom-line issue is that "a lot of us wish that people knew they could get better Internet service from a local ISP [Internet service provider]." David Cassell, who runs an anti-AOL newsletter and the AOLwatch Web site, says fighting the company is "almost a crusade."

And under it all, stoked by last week's news that AOL had grown big enough on its soaring stock price to snap up media giant Time Warner Inc., was the feeling that the Dulles-based online service was becoming an ominous global power.

Serious commentators warned of the loss of diverse voices as media companies merge, and wondered aloud about the challenges that face journalists who increasingly end up covering themselves when they prepare stories on the nation's largest corporations.

Online, the worries are similar, but the language is more raw. "All Corporations Merge into Omni-Corp.," wrote one AOL user in a Usenet forum. "The monopoly of media/communication is already a noose tight around the world's neck."

AOL chief executive Steve Case sees the slogan "AOL Anywhere" as a promise; the AOL haters see it as a threat.

Man do I hate AOL. Possibly more than Microsoft, if that's even humanly possible

This being the Internet, this being America, companies have tried to profit from the AOL discontent. Internet service provider EarthLink recently began running ads around the nation that draw concise distinctions between AOL and EarthLink's less Brobdingnagian service. One billboard reads, simply:

goliath389@aol.com

david@earthlink.net

"They are a large, monolithic marketing company," said John Lake, EarthLink's director of marketing. "We want to let people know that there's an alternative."

Those who dislike the company remember its early flubs: the rapid expansions that left users with frustrating busy signals, the inadequate staffing that led those unlucky enough to need tech support to call the company "America On Hold."

The corps of volunteers who have kept the innumerable discussions rolling over the years have sued the company for some form of compensation--a fact that rankles with Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier."

"AOL calls itself a community--it advertises itself as a community, but it disrespects community leaders," Rheingold said.

Many businesses haven't taken the company seriously either, said Mark Walsh, a former AOL executive who now heads up VerticalNet Inc., a company that helps businesses sell products and services to each other online. Walsh recalls his days at the company, when he was supposed to sell AOL's service to other businesses as their Internet home. The strategy bombed, he said.

AOL officials, clever marketers that they are, are adroit at countering the seemingly perpetual sniping by the rabid AOL-haters: the grouches are techno-snobs, the company suggests. AOL is Internet for the people.

"There are people out there who love to put things together themselves. . . . It's not cool to them if it's not a little bit hard, if you don't have to go out searching for things," said AOL spokeswoman Ann Brackbill. "But for the most part people don't want that. They don't want to build their own computers, they don't want to build their own TVs. And they don't know how to set the clocks on their VCRs. AOL is for most people."

Message: Most people have a life.

And a lot of those most people are kids--a fanatically committed population of younger users who live, virtually, in the online world for hours a day. Millions of computer-savvy teens now spend their afternoons sending instant messages to each other and engaging in party-line-style chats with buddies in a language all their own.

"I like AOL because it's the only service I've ever used and I think it's easy to navigate," says Nikki, a young woman whose posting history shows she has contributed nearly 500 messages to a newsgroup for fans of the Tulsa-based band Admiral Twin. "I like all the little icons, and the buddy list and member directory."

Techno-snobs are a limited target market. Kids are much, much bigger. Not surprisingly, AOL spends a lot of effort providing services for kids and hardly any for the elite.

That strategy has made admirers out of some. VerticalNet's Walsh, for example, says: "The company has not only righted itself, they have become the king. . . . The numbers speak for themselves--20 million is a lot of people."

AOL detractors, of course, still abound.

Jeff "Hemos" Bates, editor of the online site Slashdot and a pungent AOL critic, says AOL users come to his site (slashdot.org) to complain about the chipper but oppressive blandness of America's biggest service provider.

"They have the feeling--and I think they are correct--that AOL thinks they are idiots. From the annoying 'You've Got Mail!' to the chintzy icons, AOL seems like an attempt to build an almost Pleasantville neighborhood," he writes.

As for the objections to the restrictions on speech at AOL, the nation's leading free-speech organization says it is not terribly troubled. Phil Gutis, director of legislative communications for the American Civil Liberties Union, runs an ACLU site within AOL.

The company, Gutis says, has been a supporter of the ACLU in its attempts to fight online speech restrictions by government--and notes that people who feel oppressed by the rules can find plenty of other ways to get online. At the same time, the ACLU demanded that the company's speech restrictions not apply within the confines of the civil liberties group's domain--and AOL agreed. Now the discussion groups within the ACLU section of AOL harbor many topics and people that have been booted out of mainstream discussions. "We're a speakeasy," Gutis said, "but we don't serve the liquor."

Of course, there is one group of people who, at least until the deal was announced last week, loved AOL: that's right.

The shareholders.

I could care less if AOL was a car. . . . It's making me a mint since I bought quite a few shares back when it was $18/share and everyone was crying about busy signals.