It’s always amusing when a fading team decides to talk trash about the attention-grabbing up-and-comer — then gets reamed by the public in return.

Case in point: AOL’s Webmail Team posted a scathing letter on its blog over the weekend in which it claimed Gmail was “pay[ing] homage” to its mail service and wearing a “costume” of AOL for Halloween:

“They say imitation is the best form of flattery, so Gmail, we thank you and we are indeed very flattered. Putting together a costume that is so dead-on could not have been easy, and you’ve got it down pat. Trying to convince all the other kids at the party that the only thing to use is Gmail and putting out a press release every time you add a new button to the service is just so 1998. We’re telling you — this outfit brings back memories!”

The letter claims credit for ideas such as Gmail’s forthcoming free SMS chat option, the recent changes to the iGoogle home page, and several other services introduced over the past months. But the comments section is where the story gets most telling.

“Hey, you might have some good ideas, but if you don’t implement them well, they mean nothing. It’s like having good intentions. … AOL might be innovative over there, but they need to do more with the ideas they have. Mocking Gmail just makes you look petty and jealous,” one user writes.

“I’m not sure I get the joke — did Gmail don a clunkier UI today for Halloween?” asks another. “Seriously, AOL will always have a place in Internet history, but the present, and likely the future, belong to Google.”

At a glance, it’s hard to find a single comment that’s not expressing those same basic sentiments. And it’s not entirely surprising, either. Have you noticed how — whether it’s Olympic athletes, American Gladiators, or Internet innovators — the people who actually have the goods to back up bold claims also tend to be the ones who don’t feel the need to make them?

AOL could stand to take a lesson from Michael Phelps. If you’re gold medal material, shut your mouth and win the goddamned race. Otherwise, stop wasting everyone’s time. As the comments suggest — and as, one by one, Phelps’ trash-talking competitors learned in Beijing — unstated class will win out over unsubstantiated brass every time.

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