The AOL List: "You've Got Mail problems!"

David Cassel (
Thu, 15 May 1997 10:51:21 -0700 (PDT)

	  "Y o u ' v e   G o t   M a i l   P r o b l e m s !"


Friday Steve Case told users "we continue to make real strides in our
efforts to add system capacity."  Tuesday the Washington Post reported
that for the month of April, more than half the phone calls placed by
subscribers failed to connect.

And that was an improvement--it's up from an 80% call-failure rate in
January.  AOL's spokesperson questioned the study the Post cited--but
couldn't point to a flaw in its methodology or offer alternate results. 
Steve Case's "Community Update" conceded that AOL now receives over 13
million messages a day.  The first week in December, they were receiving
just 7 million EACH WEEK (according to AOL's "AOL Insider" column.) 

But the second week, it was 7.7 million messages--and it increased
steadily.  The week before Christmas:  7.95 million pieces of e-mail.  The
week after:  9.3 million pieces.  By April, AOL was receiving 10 million
messages A DAY--and Friday, Case's numbers suggested, it had reached 100
million each week. 

So how credible are AOL's statements about reliability?  When a three-day
mail "brown-out" hit in early April, an AOL spokesperson told the
Associated Press that it had largely fixed the problem by April 10. 
"Warning: could not send message for the past 4 hours" read the "bounce" 
message the AOL List received that day--while attempting to e-mail that
spokesperson at her AOL address.  The Associated Press concurred.  "Two
attempts on Thursday to send an on-line message from The Associated Press
to an AOL spokeswoman resulted in a note saying that the attempt to
connect with the user was unsuccessful." (Their headline noted "The
Cyberspace postman hasn't been good to America Online subscribers this

AOL's faced skepticism before.  "Note that these guys lie about nearly
everything," the editor of Boardwatch magazine writes in the May issue,
"so truthful numbers are tough to generate at this level."  He's writing
about AOL's claims of 8 million members--but he might be thinking about
busy signals.  "The Net" magazine quoted AOL's spokesperson Wendy Goldberg
as saying members were already gushing about how access had improved.  But
the magazine's lead-time is about 4 weeks--which means she made those
comments near late February, when, according to the study cited in the
Washington Post, AOL's call-failure rate would still be about 70%. 
(Goldberg would know, however, that AOL was going to launch an ad campaign
saying "You may have noticed--it's getting better" when the article
appeared.  AOL hopes the ads--aimed at *future* subscribers-- will
ultimately help attract 2 million new members by this fall; so they'll
need to counter the [correct] perception that AOL is plagued by service
problems, and that AOL left many of their subscribers unhappy... ) 

One-time AOL remote staffer Adam Bailey has a running feud about the
service's reliability with a user named J. Dalessio.  Bailey's arguments
about AOL's reliability hit a snag:  Dalessio has access to system status
reports from an internal AOL account.  "It's not just e-mail that keeps
spiking in and out of service," Dalessio told the AOL List
Wednesday--"it's EVERYTHING."  Then he forwarded the report. 

May 14, 1997

 12:32 - 12:37 p.m 	1% of mail was unavailable. 

 10:35 - 10:47 a.m. 	FTP was unavailable. 

 10:30 - 10:45 a.m. 	Users were not able to reach home pages. 

  5:30 - 6:45 a.m. 	3.5% of mail was unavailable due to maintenance. 

  5:00 - 6:45 a.m. 	Stock quotes were unavailable. 

  5:15 - 5:30 a.m. 	News groups were unavailable. 

May 13, 1997

  6:00 a.m. 		Member Directory updates will not be available. 
			Estimated time of repair 7:10 a.m. 

  5:18 a.m.  		4.5% of mail is currently unavailable. 
			Estimated time of repair 7:30 a.m. 

In a running commentary in the newsgroup, Dalessio taunts
Bailey, in messages titled "It only gets worse (Another System Status
Report)" [ 4/30 ]  and "AOL EMail down again (Gee what a surprise)"
[ 4/28 ].  In one he tells Bailey that the mail went down "because you got
to close to the Stratus and spoke."  And busy signals aren't the only
problem.  "Assuming you can even get on, you can't get your mail." 

May 2, 1997

  9 a.m.: 		6% of mail will be unavailable for an hour. 
			Estimated time of arrival: 1 hour. 

  7:00 - 8:25 a.m. 	Member Directory Updates were unavailable for 
			an hour and a half

May 1, 1997

 10:30 p.m. 		1/64th of AOL member web sites will be read only 
			until 10 a.m. May 2. 

  1:30 - 3:26 a.m. 	4% of mail was unavailable.  

  4 a.m. 		Internet mail delayed. 
			No estimated time of repair. 

How could an AOL basher get access to internal staff reports?  It's not as
hard as it seems, according to Brock Meeks--who co-authored a story this
morning on MSNBC's web site. "Staffers told MSNBC that 'overhead' accounts
were created and forgotten," Meeks told the AOL List.  "AOL only recently
started to purge these accounts, according to a former staffer we talked
to--and that process appears to be hit-and-miss.  We spoke to eight
holders of OH accounts that have never been contacted by AOL, and they've
held these free accounts for an average of five years."  (The story
suggests AOL is losing over $100 million a year through hacker activities

On April 30, the webmaster of the African-America Web Connection contacted
the AOL List, noting that a page recruiting for the KKK had again vanished
from AOL.  Only Dalessio had the answer--all AOL's web pages had gone
off-line.  "The recent web page outage (yesterday's) was affecting only a
small number of people, something like 4%," Dalessio posted that day, "and
it was due to maintenance.  Today it wound up affecting 25% of users...two
hours before it was supposed to be FIXED, it goes down across the system." 

Using his special access, Dalessio examined the in-house details.  "AOL is
still referring to it as a maintenance-related outage despite the fact
that it no longer carries a tag for repair or the word maintenance in the
status report." 

April 30, 1997

 4:52 a.m 		25% of AOL members are unable to update web pages. 
			Estimated time of repair 6 hours. 

 8:45 a.m. 		AOL Member's web pages are down. 

The problems were occurring on an almost daily basis.  Week after week,
readers of followed the posts to Dalessio's conclusion:
"their network blows goats." 

Soon even internet users started to notice.  "Mail coming in from all of
the domains in the world divided up into several [AOL] e-mail servers,"
said Alex Phillips, a staffer at an internet service provider called RICA. 
"The mail server that handles my domain -- along with hundreds of other
small ISP's -- is being delayed up to 5 days," he told the AOL List
Friday.  Even though his Harrisonburg, Virginia ISP is just 100 miles from
AOL, 8000 mail messages piled up, undelivered--provoking furious words.
"My customers say it's our fault," he complained.  "AOL has made no
announcement about this to their subscribers."
Next, problems began affecting mailing lists.  "First, last week AOL
changed their software for their own reasons," John Berg, owner of the
Searoom mailing list, announced Tuesday.  "That new software apparently
didn't conform to an Internet standard, which caused AOL to reject
messages, in a rather erratic way, from a large number of list-servs, and
to return them to the senders."  He echoed Phillips' concerns.  "Whether
or not AOL subscribers were told before, during, or after the blackout is
not known to me."  Their lack of response left him perplexed.  "AOL seems
to be repairing the problem piecemeal...  So far AOL has not issued an
explanation nor offered the comment that this is well within tolerances
for a .com their size." 

"[W]hile Case's words rang in the background," Wired News reported
Tuesday, "a portion of the e-mail messages directed at AOLers from the
rest of the Net took up to five days to arrive - or simply bounced back to
the sender." ( ) 

The problems even affected J. Dalessio.  He mails 140 members on a mailing
list about games.  "I can go on my AOL account and talk with 90% of those
people," he posted, "but when I ask if they got my last e-mail, they say
NO.  This 140-person list contains people from all over the country, plus
one in Japan..."  There's no mistake.  "Hell, I CC myself on each mail." 
And the experience is unmistakeable.  "I mail myself from my AOL account,
and Bounce-O the Clown hits me right in the face with a Returned Mail

It's possible AOL's system is melting-down -- and the press has yet to

April 28, 1997

 12:10 p.m.  		Mail is down. 
			No estimated time of arrival. 

Yet continuing their pose as a leading-edge arbiter, AOL offers their
"Members Choice" page (  But they handle
it with the same efficiency.  The page points to NetGuide Live--"a
comprehensive daily guide to what's live, what's new, and what's changing
online."  But "the page you requested no longer exists," NetGuide informs
us when we follow the link, "or is in a new location."

" 'Total New York' bridges the gap between real and virtual space," AOL
promises in another description.  "The server does not have a DNS entry," 
Netscape's error message reports. 

"I wonder if they ever check links on their own site?" one disgruntled AOL
staffer told the AOL List.  "Probably not."  The last entry on the
Member's Choice page touts the Motley Fool's web page--then points to a
URL they changed over fourteen months ago.  "We asked AOL to maintain it," 
a Fool staffer complains.  "We even replaced every page at with a forwarding page to our new site so our
readers could find us.  Unfortunately, AOL blew away the whole site."  For
the last four months, the link has pointed to a site which no longer

Links leading nowhere aren't unusual.  The AOL List noted that as recently
as October of 1996, a promotional web page set up for Steve Case announced
that Case was looking forward to Courtney Love's appearance at
Lollapalooza--even though Courtney Love completed her Lollapalooza
appearances in 1995. "If you cruise the rest of their site, you will find
even more," one technical staffer told the AOL List.  "It's pretty sad." 

In the comedy "Austin Powers," when the ineffective spy receives a message
from headquarters, it's preceded by the sound file, "You've Got Mail". But
disdain for AOL's pose of competence even reached their content providers. 
In 1995 AOL's "Wired" area contacted Elwood Edwards--the man whose voice
recorded the "You've got mail" sound file, and together they produced ten
substitute files, which users could install in place of AOL's original
greetings.  Then when they accessed the system for their e-mail, Edwards'
voice would mutter, "Yeah, Right."

Other alternate recordings: 

	"You want fries with that?" 
	"Stop touching me." 
	"You've got credit card debt!" 
	"Oy, Gevalt..." 

All ten of Edwards' recordings are available at

Now a pessimistic cloud hangs over AOL's building in Virginia.  "Employees
are leaving in droves," one industry observer told The AOL List. "What
used to be 'Why did they leave?' has turned into 'Congratulations!' "  
And it gets worse.  "Everyone is trying to get out before the next round
of lay-offs.  Besides, no one likes working in Dulles.  The average
commute time is now one hour..."

"They no longer offer stock options to new employees," they observed
finally--but it's just as well.  AOL made Worth magazine's "Ten Stocks
to Avoid" list -- an investment professional's pick of their "least
favorite stocks--securities the pro expects to underperform the market." 
( ) Ominous signs are
everywhere--even the garbled syntax that shows up in Steve Case's May
Community Update ("all AOL members benefit from the ease of use,
convenience, fun and value for which our US members helped create.") 
Friday AOL's newly-hired editorial director said that if the service is
still standing, it's an accident.  "Over the years, every attempt by AOL
management to drive the customers away has failed," he told the New York
Times. ( 

Coincidentally, the New York Times area on AOL had been hacked just three
days earlier. ( ) 

Even AOL loyalists are losing their faith.  "I am very, very dedicated to
AOL," one staffer told the AOL List, "but even I have been getting more
and more frustrated with the 'system problems' and the general politics
going on."  And it's widespread.  "Many Community Leaders are getting real
tired, real fast." After a year of defending the service--with mixed
results ( Adam Bailey has
thrown in the towel. In discussions with the AOL List, the one-time AOL
staffer conceded that "My experiences can (and frequently do) differ with
the reported experiences of others."

THE LAST LAUGH was created weeks after AOL offered Usenet access to their
members in 1994.  Amid the newsgroup's recent banter came an answer to the
question, How many AOL users does it take to change a light bulb?

"Forty," writes one poster.  "But they all have to fight for a free bulb
socket when one becomes available." 

        David Cassel
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