“A lot of people don’t even realize AOL is still a thing,” says Catherine Russell, a 32-year-old production manager based in Washington, D.C. She still uses the original AOL email address she created when she was 12 — a mere 20 years ago.
Russell was eventually shamed into creating a Gmail account. She was working on the set of an indie film in 2006 when a crew member mocked her for using AOL. “He made some disparaging remark about that being archaic,” she says. “After that I got a Gmail account to use for job applications and professional communications.”
At its peak around 2000, AOL boasted more than 23 million subscribers across the U.S., while its competitor EarthLink had around 3 million. Most paid around $20 per month for email and dial-up. While a few companies deployed free email services in the late 1990s, it wasn’t until 2004 that Google launched free email with what was then an unfathomable one GB of online storage. It offered a radical alternative for users who’d constantly had to delete messages in overflowing inboxes. Two years later, AOL offered its own free version of email supported by advertising — but it was too little, too late. By 2012, Gmail had 425 million active users, while AOL’s subscriber base had dwindled to 3.5 million.
But despite the rise of broadband and free email, both AOL and EarthLink have somehow managed to survive. It’s difficult to get up-to-date figures, since the two entities are now subsidiaries and barely register as a blip on their parent companies’ balance sheets. Neither company would disclose its current number of monthly subscribers, but as of 2014, more than 2.1 million people still used AOL dial-up.
“The only real downside of having an AOL address now is the snickering from millennials who routinely assume that Grandpa is too dumb to use Gmail.”
John Levine, a consultant and the author of Internet for Dummies, pointed to AOL’s 2014 annual filing — the last year it broke out email separately — which reported $600 million revenue from its email services in 2014 and said it expected a $50 million decline each year. Based on that estimation, the company would still have made $400 million from email and dial-up in 2018. He said that even before Verizon acquired it in 2015, AOL provided the SEC “no clarity at all [about] how many were using the dial-up service and how many just didn’t realize they could get their account for free.”
Many people were embarrassed to talk about how they’ve ended up paying for an email service they aren’t using. Julia, who asked to omit her last name to protect her mother’s privacy, says the family used AOL in the 1990s, but switched to Comcast in 2003 when they moved to a new home. It wasn’t until 2018 that Julia’s mom noticed the payments to AOL on her bank statement. “My mom doesn’t use auto-payments for anything normally,” says Julia. “She writes checks and keeps track of everything through her checkbook, so it was flying under her radar.”
The revelation was troubling for Julia’s mother, who told her daughter it made her feel worthless and incompetent: “She was really upset with the idea that she wouldn’t be able to make it in the world without a more tech-savvy young person looking out for her and fixing her mistakes.”
In many ways, AOL and its competitors were precursors to the subscription economy now embraced by everyone from Apple to Medium, the website you’re now reading. Sharad Mohan, CEO of the fitness software startup Trainerize, has spent most of his career working in the tech sector. He says that while companies like AOL have a legal right to continue charging customers signed up for their services, it’s nonetheless unethical. “What they’re doing right now is kind of keeping it as a cash cow,” says Mohan.“There’s really no cost for them to keep that part of the business up and running. But we’re subscribing to so many things that cost between $5 and $50 a month. Even myself, I don’t check every single transaction every single month. The onus is on companies to take some responsibility for being transparent.”
AOL’s current owner, Verizon Media, did not respond to OneZero’s requests for comment.
Yet there are those who have actively chosen to continue paying for their old legacy email accounts — however baffling it may be to the rest of the world. Sean Chandler was a middle schooler when he set up his family’s AOL account in the mid-90s. More than two decades later, he discovered that his mom, Jane, was still paying $7 per month for AOL email — and not because she is clueless about technology. “She’s aware she’s been paying for it for 20 years while not really using it. She’s aware that her children are kind of confused by this,” he says. “I just don’t know why she’s still using it.”
For her part, Jane Chandler says she uses her work email for personal correspondence and the AOL email as a junk account. “It’s pure laziness,” she says. “I’d be smart to get a free account. One of these days I will get my act together and probably move over, but I haven’t yet.”
Nick Garrison, a 37-year-old working in public relations for a tech company, pays for ad-free Yahoo email. “At some point I started paying $20 per year so that my sent mail would not have ads tacked at the bottom,” he said. “I continue to pay this ridiculous fee nearly 20 years later because I do not want to get rid of my Yahoo account… Many of my friends and contacts continue to email my Yahoo address and I feel oddly attached to it.” Contacts aren’t the only reason people hold on to old email addresses — keeping the archive of old emails is also a factor.
“I’ve always been pretty particular in my tastes, and this is one I feel super strongly about.”
Security is also a motivation for some; paid-for email services like ProtonMail, Hushmail, Tutanota, and Mailfence all offer encryption. Growth consultant Stafford Palmier left Gmail after learning that Google scanned users’ emails to provide targeted advertising and gave third parties access to messages. “This made me and many others gravely concerned, and so we were willing to give up personalization and integration for privacy and security,” she says.
There are even some diehard fans of AOL. Administrative assistant Anna Johnson chooses to pay for AOL’s desktop email service because she prefers it to alternatives like Gmail, which she has a particular antipathy toward. “I’m a proud (barely) millennial AOL user who only slightly less proudly pays for it,” says Johnson, who created her screen name in 1999 when she was 17. “I’ve always been pretty particular in my tastes, and this is one I feel super strongly about. I love, love, love the AOL desktop program.” She does, however, let other people assume she’s using the free version. “It’s hard to try to explain,” she concedes.
Mike Rubin, a retired attorney who has worked at Apple and a semiconductor company, wants to challenge the trope of AOL users as technology fumblers. “I continue to use AOL in part because it reminds me that I was an early Internet user,” he says. “I joined AOL in the late ’80s.”
Rubin insists that AOL has been reliable over the years and works just as well as Gmail. “The only real downside of having an AOL address now is the snickering from millennials who routinely assume that Grandpa is too dumb to use Gmail,” says Rubin, who uses AOL’s free version. “I love telling the younger folks that I was running CP/M OS and applications on modified Atari computers when I first got my AOL address, at a time when they were still crapping their diapers.”