You've Got Mail! Except When You Don't

If AOL's (AOL) e-mail system crashes and no one tweets about it, does it make a sound? One day in late January, Kurt Andersen, the novelist and host of public radio show Studio 360, tried to check his AOL e-mail account. He was redirected to an error page. Curious whether the problem was widespread, he jumped on Twitter, the micromessaging service that has become a soapbox for stranded travelers, disappointed gadget buyers, and other angry consumers. Andersen typed "AOL" into the social media site's search engine. Radio silence.

Andersen was far from alone. AOL was actually in the midst of a severe e-mail service disruption affecting hundreds of thousands of users. Yet the forums that typically fill up with breathless tirades during even the slightest Internet-related glitch were quiet. Tech blogs largely ignored the subject. Facebook did not rage. Twitter barely stirred.

The collective yawn was a reminder of just how far out of favor AOL's e-mail service has fallen, particularly among tech-savvy consumers.

"It's become so out of fashion that horrible, horrible things can happen to AOL e-mail and nobody even notices," says Rob Beschizza, the managing editor of Boing Boing, a popular technology and culture blog that made no mention of the meltdown. Danny Shea, senior media editor at the Huffington Post, says that outages on popular services quickly earn their own hashtag—a way to mark tweets relating to a specific event—and a spot on Twitter's list of popular topics. "If it were Gmail, the #GmailFail hashtag would be trending immediately," says Shea.

The service problems began on Jan. 24, when a maintenance procedure went haywire. That day, thousands of users found that their mailboxes were mysteriously incomplete. Parts of some e-mails, folders, and contact lists were suddenly AWOL from AOL's servers. According to a company spokesperson, the failure affected roughly 1 percent of the e-mail service's users.

AOL executives quickly set up a support website and claim to have now fixed more than 99 percent of the accounts affected. "We're glad we were able to recover everything reasonably quickly," says Brad Garlinghouse, AOL's president for consumer applications. Nonetheless, frustrated users continued to post complaints on the support site on Feb. 2. Many vowed to leave AOL for Google's (GOOG) e-mail service, Gmail.

They wouldn't be alone. AOL, which was once the dominant e-mail provider in the U.S., is now the fourth-most popular service, according to comScore, with 25.2 million unique visitors in December 2010, trailing behind Yahoo! (93.9 million), Gmail (51.2 million), and Hotmail (45.7 million). The site continues to shrink. Since December 2009, AOL has suffered a 19.5 percent drop in unique visitors.

"When you see somebody who has an AOL e-mail address, you think, 'haven't you heard of Gmail or Yahoo or other Web-based e-mail?'" says Daniel Sieberg, a technology reporter for CBS News, ABC News, and MSNBC. "You think, 'Please, come into the 21st century.' "

"There's an echo chamber in the Twitterverse and a certain arrogance that is sometimes associated with the tech elite," says Garlinghouse. "There are 25 million very active, very happy users of AOL mail. That's something we're proud of." AOL is putting the finishing touches on Project Phoenix, a major overhaul of the company's e-mail system due to be unveiled in the next few months. "We're absolutely aiming to reinvent the inbox," says Garlinghouse.

In the meantime, some AOL e-mail users continue to embrace their old-timey accounts, service disruptions and social stigma be damned. "It's like driving an Edsel or some weird old thingthere's some appeal to it," says Andersen.

The bottom line: AOL is overhauling its e-mail service, which is so out of vogue that a January disruption went largely unnoticed.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.