Gmail was, once upon a time, an invite-only cool kids’ club of early adopters. Today, it is unquestionably the standard for today’s 20- and 30-somethings: personal email for the professionals, and professional email for the pseudo-professionals/freelancers/artists/perennially-unemployed/web-trepreneurs. “Very late-twenties,” as my friend recently put it.
But not so long ago there was no Gmail. There was Hotmail. And YahooMail. And before that AOL. Tracing the evolution is like looking at the rings of a tree, or geological strata. The earliest ancestors have died off: you shan’t be receiving anything from the fossils of Prodigy or Eudora. Still, the old guard is adapting, trying to keep up with the cutting edge in electronic letter-writing. Where you stand in the fray may represent as much about you as the clothes you wear, or whether you order hoagies, heroes or subs.
A few years ago, in the dark days between friendster and facebook, I endeavored to track down a friend from my college study abroad program. I searched old emails and found his address: email@example.com [address has been altered to protect the innocent, but only slightly]. By this point in our lives, I mused, there’s little chance he’s using pbshorts@hotmail to apply for jobs or craigslist apartments. But it was all I had — and I was still using the same old (though decidedly less embarrassing) address — so I went with it:
Hey. I doubt that you still use this address, opting instead for firstname.lastname@example.org or some similar de rigueur email permutation. But I figured I’d give it a shot — and if you’re reading this then the attempt has been at least partially successful.
I received a reply two weeks later from an alternate address. I was only off by a dot in my prediction.
It’s virtually a given that if you’re a member of the New Pepsi Generation, your contemporaries have the Gmail. As a corollary to this widespread embrace, a set of basic guidelines has developed that makes it fairly easy to divine their specific addresses. FirstnameLastname@gmail.com is a safe bet, as is Firstname.Lastname. Those with common names might have to go LastnameFirstname, while, on the flipside, those with unusual names can sometimes, given the relative infancy of the technology, get away with Firstname alone.
Forget appending 123 at the end to differentiate yourself, or using hobbies or descriptions in lieu of proper names. Moreover, with the burgeoning popularity of Google Chat (which I familiarly refer to as “guh-chat”), these earnest, truly self-referential monikers have largely replaced, or at least displaced, the puerile, ofttimes inside-jokey IM handles of AOL’s heyday.
In our collective defense, back then we didn’t know any better. When I first signed up for a Yahoo account in college it didn’t register for a flickering moment that I was about to label myself for years to come; I used the truncated version of my first initial and last name that the university administration assigned me upon matriculation. How could I have conceived that this seemingly trivial alias held the potential to affect an indelible impression on the perception of me by future e-acquaintances? I just wanted to forward course communiques to something other than my school’s shitty webmail system. Nor did I imagine that I’d still be answering to my AIM username nigh on a decade hence.
By now we’ve learned, some the hard way, that our email addresses can say as much about us as the emails we write with them. Furthermore, regardless of your chosen handle, every provider’s @suffix appendage comes with its own connotations. Let’s take a quick look at the major players: What message is your corporate alliance sending out?
Using an AOL address? You’re at least 50. Please stop forwarding me lawyer jokes.
Yahoo or Hotmail, same diff. Likely the first address you created post-subscription fee. That number at the end? It’s your birthday, or the year you started the account. Soon enough you’ll transition to Gmail anyway, and your friends will automatically ignore this one in their contacts lists.
You are a grown up. You use your real, full name because you are mature and self-possessed. You no longer need a clever handle to assert your individuality online. Frequent, witty status updates should take care of that.