The Me.com Decade

heinrich The Me.com DecadeOn June 9, subscribers to mac.com—a service that for a $99 annual fee provides online photo storage, personal calendars and an e-mail address announcing one’s allegiance to the modish computer brand of the decade—received a missive from an entity called “The .Mac Team.”

“Today, Apple announced a new Internet service called MobileMe,” this team wrote brightly, going on to promise “a host of new features,” including the ability to “push” a clump of data “over the air,” like God himself puffing at a cloud, from one’s laptop to one’s iPhone (the latest edition of which would prove to be available, or rather frustratingly unavailable, by the middle of the following month).

Owners of a mac.com address attempting to log onto the Web and check their messages in subsequent weeks were redirected to perhaps the most off-putting domain name of our era: me.com, which had been purchased by Apple for an undisclosed but presumably enormous sum back in 2007. They were then offered the option of changing their cozy, familiar mac.com addresses to narcissistic-sounding me.com addresses: kind of the generic version of having your own name be your domain, as in jane@janedoe.com. “The choice is yours,” thundered the letter in the pseudo-benevolent patois familiar since the dawn of marketing.

Who could be blamed for feeling like a dupe, whichever of these unappealing options one might “choose”? Somewhere along the way, an e-mail address that had seemed pretty hip back in, oh, 2003, had begun to indicate a sucker paying for functions that were widely available elsewhere, notably Google, for free; and worse, were bug-ridden—as further letters from Apple, one promising “we are going to stop using the word ‘push,’” would attest in the weeks to come.

And yet to jettison the whole thing completely would be such a pain. … What was a mac.com-mer to do: Start being one of those annoying people who e-mail friends from the post.edu address of their fancy institutions of higher learning? Fling another e-mail address onto the rummage heap of cyberspace? Or keep it in the rotation, adding to the ever-growing list of Web pages that must be checked and weeded several times a day?

It was a predicament not without precedent. There was a time when AOL was tremendously cutting edge, but now it is the default address of McCain-voting Middle Americans sending around cat jokes and emoticons: the online equivalent of wearing mom jeans. A New York book publicist in her 20s who didn’t want her name used, lest she offend her author list, said that whenever she deals with someone who has an AOL address, she wonders if they’re “completely clueless about the current electronic messaging options.” But the publicist herself is far from secure in her online self-representation, having switched from AOL to vintage e-mail brand Yahoo the week in 2004 that Gmail, the current go-to provider, was first introduced. “AOL was shite, but I put up with it for years because I didn’t want the bother of circulating a new e-mail address,” she wrote recently. “I finally gave in, sent out a mass e-mail with my new contact info, and this weird D&D type I knew from grad school offered to set me up with an infinitely superior Gmail account instead. I could not bear to send out yet another mass e-mail, within the space of an hour! I remember it was really hot that day, and I’d just returned from a trip to Vienna, during which my AOL account had continually failed me, and I was so sweaty and jet-lagged that I stuck with Yahoo, feeling a twinge of regret every time yet another friend switched to Gmail.”

All through this summer, however, Gmail has crashed repeatedly and displayed other glitches (errant reply-alls, etc.), leaving its normally smug and proselytizing users fuming, and, perhaps, lending AOL and other providers a weird kind of reverse chic in the process. Hotmail’s attempts to get with the program, as it were—color-customized mailboxes! Facebook-like “Spaces”!—suddenly seemed not annoying, but endearing. As does the way Bill Z., an English teacher in his 50s who lives on the Upper West Side, clings to Verizon.com, like a tweed jacket with threadbare elbows. “I don’t want the hassle of informing everybody that I’ve changed addresses, though I did leave Earthlink for Verizon once upon a time,” he said, as though reminiscing about a lover. “In the fall I will dump Verizon because all the buildings where I live have been wired by RCN, and they have a terrific $99 package for phone, TV cable and DSL. Verizon is just too damn expensive!”

But the address with perhaps the most well-worn cachet is Rocketmail, the Yahoo predecessor that dates to the late 1990s, long before Apple’s hegemony. Sarah Manguso, author of the recent memoir The Two Kinds of Decay (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), said her allegiance to the service landed her a dot-com job, since the hiring VP was also a Rocket Man. “He fired a better copy editor,” she said, “to make room for me.” 

And what of the chance to make one’s e-mail address not just an address, but a totally integrated lifestyle platform? Ms. Manguso, for one, ain’t buying. “I’ll stay true to Rocketmail,” she said, “for the same reason I’ve done so until now: inertia.”

wheinrich@observer.com, ajacobs@observer.com