Over the weekend, Aol announced a major overhaul to its e-mail service, which served as an entry point to the internet for millions in the dial-up days of the '90s and early 2000s. As acknowledged by the upgrade's name, Project Phoenix, today's Aol is struggling to find a way out of the old-news ashes.
Then, on Monday, Facebook rolled out a "messaging system" that CEO Mark Zuckerberg insists isn't e-mail, but it sure sounds like it's got plenty of email-like features to us.
It remains to be seen who will start using Facebook messaging as their primary means of online communication or who might be coaxed back to the home of "You've Got Mail" by the new Aol features. (Hey, they already lower-cased the "O" and the "L" so clearly times are a-changin', right?)
And that, in turn, had us thinking about what your e-mail account says about you.
Here's the harsh truth: Whether you know it or not, some people judge you the moment they see what comes after the "@" in your messages.
At the risk of flirting with internet snobbery, here is a look at the place where ISPs and personalities meet. (It's worth noting, we're not the first to do so. We're particularly fond of this fun graphic from The Oatmeal, a humor blog.)
These are stereotypes gathered in the name of fun and, like all stereotypes, there are exceptions. That said, let the stereotyping begin!
Here's a breakdown of what e-mail addresses may signify about their users:
You probably have the same e-mail address you had in 1997.
You also might be 70.
Fair or not, if you send an e-mail from an Aol account, the recipient is likely to expect it to be spam, a forward of some thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory or pictures of kittens.
"I get the sense that people with Aol addresses have just been too lazy to upgrade, i.e., their e-mail address is still: IHeartKittens81@aol.com," says Brenna Ehrlich, a co-creator of the "Stuff Hipsters Hate" blog and writer for tech-blog Mashable.
Aol's new upgrades are actually getting some good reviews -- although some of the revamped service's e-mail address options -- @ygm.com (for "You've Got Mail"), @wow.com and @love.com have raised a few eyebrows. YourName@love.com -- really?
The Oatmeal blog points out the venerable internet portal still has a long way to go to shake the stereotype that its users are prone to direct you to a website by saying, "OK, go to h ... t ... t ... p ... colon ... slash ... slash ... w ... w ... w ... ."
Not much different than Aol.
Hotmail is another ISP that was huge in the Web's earlier days but has lost cache among the technorati.
(We'll pause here to point out that Hotmail remains the world's most popular e-mail provider, with more than 360 million accounts. But a lot of that is outside the United States -- it's in 10 languages -- and its longevity can be attributed to its link to the long arm of its creator, Microsoft).
Stuff Hipsters Hate co-creator Andrea Bartz, who along with Ehrlich writes a "netiquette" column for CNN, points out a potentially surprising subset of users. Some of the very hipsters she documents, she said, camp out on a Hotmail address the same way they wear their scruffy skateboarding shoes from high school.
"It's like a silly cat sweater," she said, "Ironic on a hipster, awkward and anachronistic on a middle-aged housewife."
We ended up with a hung jury on Yahoo mail.
Many folks in our incredibly nonscientific polling said they have Yahoo accounts, which they only use as an address to provide on sites they expect to flood them with spam.
But, to be sure, Yahoo has stayed more aggressive with its updates, spam filtering and the like than some of its competitors. And it's continued to grow -- it has 273 million users -- while services such as Aol floundered.
We'll call this one a no-decision. But be aware that there are those out there who will judge you for Yahoo. (Same goes for addresses from cable/phone/Web providers, such as @comcast.net or sbcglobal.net).
What doesn't Google do?
The search giant/e-mail provider/phone system and map maker vies with Facebook for "king of the internet" honors. And its e-mail system, with 193 million users, is one of the reasons.
Gmail, its supporters point out, is free, boasts tons of storage, has a strong chat feature and acts as a portal to many of Google's other services.
The Oatmeal says a Gmail user "most likely knows their way around a computer" and "when the internet stops working, actually tries rebooting the router before calling a family member for help."
Only one problem, really.
"Too bad it will probably gain free will some day and kill us all," Ehrlich said.
Owning your own domain name pretty much puts you at the top of the e-savvy stack.
No one will think you're a rube when they get your e-mail. They may, however, think you're self-centered. And possibly a megalomaniac.
Not that you care.
In this day and age, nothing that proves you actually have a job can be a bad thing, right?
Same for the whole higher-education thing. In its earliest days, Facebook was an uber-exclusive club that required a Harvard e-mail account to join. Nothing wrong with some school spirit, and if it brought a healthy dose of Ivy League self-importance along with it, all the better.
But if you insist on using your work e-mail for all your personal messages, then people may make two assumptions about you:
1. You spend too much time at work.
2. You want everyone to be impressed by your @whitehouse.gov e-mail account.
Here are a couple of tips: Keep a close eye on your office policies before relying too heavily on your work e-mail. What the internet at large thinks of you might become rapidly less important than what your boss thinks of you if they decide to take a look over your digital shoulder.
And if you're more than a few years out of school, dump the alma mater's account. If you're still using @harvard.edu 20 years after graduation, you'll just be the digital equivalent of the middle-aged guy still trying to squeeze on his letterman's jacket.