On Thursday, the Indianapolis Star reported that Mike Pence had employed a personal email account for official correspondence while serving as governor of Indiana. As the Star observes, this revelation—much like other stories about government officials using private email—raises important transparency questions. It’s also obviously hypocritical, coming as it does from an official who attacked Hillary Clinton for similar missteps—not least of all because scammers hacked his account in 2016 and sent out an email to his contacts list, pretending that he was stranded in the Phillipines and needed money.
More puzzling, though—or at least more amusing—was Pence’s choice of email providers. In an age of easily accessible Gmail accounts and customizable domains, Pence continued to rely on America Online for his email needs. Pence was, in fact, so committed to the platform that, according to the Star, “He also set up a new AOL account” after apologizing to those who’d received a scam message from his account.
Yes, that AOL. The one whose signup CDs you used as frisbees.
Once upon a time, Pence’s choice of providers would have been unremarkable: In the early days of the commercial internet, it all but went with territory. Since then, however, the domain has become vaguely embarrassing. Rightly or wrongly, to keep employing AOL was to implicitly admit that you didn’t really get the internet—that you were happier to let the spider come to you than to crawl the web of your own accord.
Over the years, some have pushed back against that largely unspoken premise. Most notably, in a 2011 Politico blog post, Ben Smith suggested that AOL accounts might actually be status symbols. Claiming that they were still employed by figures such as Dick Morris, Ann Coulter, and Matt Drudge, Smith wrote that he’d “started to notice a certain prestige attached to the AOL.com survivors.” Adrian Chen quibbled with Smith’s conclusions, arguing, “This is another example of the sycophantic logic that twists powerful people’s flaws into reinforcing how much better they are than normal people.”
As Mike Pence demonstrates, though, the powerful do use AOL, whether or not they employ it to prove how powerful they are. Perhaps Pence’s choice was more like that of Slate’s Derreck Johnson, who wrote in 2014 that he’s been using the same AOL address since the mid-’90s. “Do I hold onto it for the same reason I hold onto my Air Huaraches and my seemingly endless back issues of The Source? Possibly,” Johnson asked and answered. But ultimately, his persistence was (and remains! He’s still got the account) a matter of simple practicality. “I just haven’t switched because I haven’t needed to,” he wrote.
But if that’s the case for Pence, we still have to account for a lingering detail—that he apparently created a new AOL account after his old one was hacked. (Why, one wonders, did he not simply initiate account recovery protocols and change his password? Did he think his account was tainted? Haunted, perhaps?) Assuming the Star’s reporting on this detail was right, we have to assume that Pence was so committed to AOL that he was willing to keep using it, even if that meant starting over with a new, unfamiliar address.
In an attempt to better understand the new vice president’s mindset, I did something I would have never expected to do in 2017: I created a new AOL account of my own.
Today, the AOL.com homepage is a busy mess, seemingly designed to cram as much information into as little space as possible. If you’re logged in, it’ll give you the weather, local news, your horoscope, and more, all condensed onto a single screen, and available with minimal scrolling or clicking. This is the distant descendant of the company’s old quasi-walled garden model, the entire internet (or a simulacrum thereof) writ-small and rendered safe. So long as you remain incurious, there’s enough here to distract you all day.
AOL’s email application, by contrast, feels at least a little more contemporary. On first pass, its design is reminiscent of Gmail’s. But look a little closer and you’ll start to notice the sort of features you might associate with the AOL of old. Button placement on the formatting bar emphasizes file attachment and image insertion—the better, presumably, to forward along those adorable pictures of your grandkids. Similarly, it offers users easy access to emojis, but only 16 of them, enough to enable expressive correspondence, but not enough to beget choice paralysis. As in many other email clients, the font defaults to Arial—a largely inoffensive sans serif option—but click the dropdown to switch it up, and the first alternative it furnishes is Comic Sans. (Google Inbox, by contrast, defies alphabetical order and buries Comic Sans in the middle of the list, as if to avoid accidental clicks. And unlike AOL Mail, it eschews WingDings altogether.)
Good luck to those employing these features to their fullest, though. When I tried to send Slate’s Katy Waldman an email showing off the newfound ease with which I could switch between colors and fonts, the service cut me off, telling me only, “The message was not sent because of an error.” After I tried a few more times, it finally acknowledged that it was concerned that I was a spammer, and made me pass a test to prove that I wasn’t a bot.
Given that I had just created my account and wasn’t writing in complete sentences, AOL’s caution was probably appropriate. And while I don’t doubt that other email providers have similar protections in place, it somehow seems apt that the once ubiquitous AOL would be so hesitant about a new user. Why would anyone join AOL in this day and age, if not to fill the internet up with more garbage? But it also makes one wonder how the message from Pence’s hacked account, which went out under the subject line “Nefarious News !!!” and featured at least three significant errors in its first sentence, passed muster.
This is all to say, I almost get it. AOL may be dorky, but it’s convenient and mostly functional. As it happens, though, Pence may have moved on as he moved up in the world. In January, CNN reported that the official vice president Twitter handle linked to a Gmail account.