, the investor site of the jester-hatted
brothers, has given up control of the service that made it famous: its message boards on
In a memo posted on the Motley Fool page on AOL, the Fool broke the news to its readers. "We have an announcement that may come as a bit of a surprise to many of you," the memo began. "As of tomorrow afternoon, The Motley Fool will no longer manage the stock message boards found here on America Online." The memo was dated April 13.
The move weakens a bond between the Fool and AOL created when the flood of financial information on the Internet was a mere trickle. The Fool began running boards on AOL almost five years ago, when the entities were about the only games in town for stock boards and Internet access, respectively.
The Fool memo, in frank terms, revealed a flap between the Fool and AOL. It said AOL recently linked its Personal Finance Channel and the Fool message boards before the two had agreed upon appropriate guidelines for message posting. The new link greatly increased traffic to the Fool boards, and as a result, there has been a "significant increase" in message posting rule violations, the memo says. "This has created an environment that falls below Foolish community standards," the memo states.
Tom Ziemba, an AOL spokesman, confirmed Motley Fool was not managing the boards anymore and that the boards had been moved to AOL's personal investing area. "We are currently in contract negotiations with the Motley Fool," Ziemba says. "And they could come back to manage the boards again."
The Fool's memo says the Fool is seeking to rectify the situation with AOL and could return to managing the AOL boards if "we can get the proper tools and staffing."
Currently, the AOL message boards are being overseen by AOL's paid staff and possibly some volunteers, who would be supervised by trained staff, Ziemba says. Motley Fool continues to offer its other features on AOL, like editorial commentary and stock portfolios (AOL is still a position). And it has stock boards on its own Web
Julie Lewis, a Motley Fool spokeswoman, would not comment beyond the memo. "It speaks for itself," she says.
It is unclear whether the message board tiff will sever one of the longest running online relationships, but it certainly seems to have soured it. "Look, they're the ones that opted not to manage the boards anymore," Ziemba says. AOL also takes exception to the memo's claim that terms of service violations have increased since the traffic has grown, Ziemba says. "We monitor the boards carefully," he says, adding: "This is just a change they decided to make."
For now, the boards are accessible through AOL's "investment snapshot," essentially an extended stock quote with links to other features.
The flap may seem an ignominious turn in one of the earliest online partnerships and bona fide rags-to-riches success stories. AOL and the Motley Fool came together in 1994 when the Motley Fool founding brothers, Tom and David Gardner, were offered a portion of AOL's then-$4-an-hour subscriber fee in exchange for starting and operating a financial information site within AOL. Amazing as it is to envision now, at that time AOL was actively seeking partnerships with entities like the Motley Fool and others to counter a shortage of content on its Web community site. Now, many content providers pay AOL for a position on its online service.
The partnership took off, and within two months AOL increased the percentage paid to the Fool, which helped it expand. Shortly after, write-ups in the press, interviews on television and radio and offers to the brothers to author books cemented the Fool, and AOL as well, as popular sources of financial info online.
Now, both Motley Fool and AOL are far from their tenuous start-up roots, but they also are far from being the only house on the street. Motley Fool has gotten a run for its money on its centerpiece message boards from both
"I really don't read the Motley Fool boards that much -- I'm more a, SI guy," says Tod Pauly, a daily peruser of message boards. Still, there is a sense of nostalgic loss with Motley Fool's abandoning its management of the AOL boards, since much of the reputation of both was built on Motley Fool staffers' active and knowledgeable participation in the give-and-take of the Internet chat community. Says Pauly, "Without the Gardners, you really don't have Motley Fool."
It's possible as well that increased concerns about the quality of financial information and the rise in fraud on the Internet has the Fool wary about legal liability. The rise in hoaxes, fraud and stock touting on the message-board and chat-room circuits has sparked several new lawsuits against message posters, as well as increased surveillance by securities regulators.
"I assume Motley Fool may not want to be exposed to that sort of legal trouble," says Jared Silverman, a private attorney in New Jersey who specializes in Internet-related cases.
Motley Fool has
faced some heat about its message boards before. In 1997, the site discovered that one of its volunteer board monitors was touting a stock in possible violation of
Securities and Exchange Commission
rules. Motley Fool reorganized how it oversaw the boards, firing its fleet of volunteers.
Another reason for the change may be that Motley Fool -- whose espoused wisdom can now be found on radio, TV, newspapers and books, and which reportedly recorded about $10 million in revenue last year in merchandising -- simply doesn't need its AOL message boards anymore. The Gardners' own Web site for Motley Fool gets more than 30 million hits a day, news reports say.
"I think what this move shows is the maturity of the Internet," says Silverman. "The Gardners simply don't need AOL anymore."
But the old partners are still in contract renegotiations. It seems AOL will have to decide if it still needs Motley Fool.