Sweet Erosions of E-mail

Ups and Downs on the Communication Front

Dedicated to www.idea.org.uk/cfront

“NORTH FALMOUTH, Mass.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–June 8, 2000– (NASDAQ:BTHS) Benthos, Inc. In an historic breakthrough in underwater communications made possible by the use of a Benthos ATM 885 Telesonar Acoustic Modem, the US Navy has completed its latest series of tests in which the submarine USS Dolphin, while cruising at a depth of 400 feet, was able to successfully send several e-mail messages via the internet to facilities located ashore.”

It is a popular saying that e-mail is the ultimate killer application of the Internet. No matter how opinions may divide over the possible economic, social or cultural impacts of new technologies, there seems to a next to global consensus about the blessings of electronic mail. Unlike the bandwidth consuming multi-media content on the Web, e-mail as a medium has well positioned itself beyond any criticism. It is being said that streaming media are for the happy few, with their T1, DSL or cable access, whereas e-mail is regarded as the big equalizer. Whereas broadband is widening the “digital divide”, e-mail has the historical task to empower those with less access to technology. Lately I started feeling increasing uncomfortable about this almighty, unquestioned assumption which is not addressing what is actually happening.

“In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, an evil king, was condemned to Hades to forever roll a big rock to the top of a mountain, and then the rock always rolled back down again. Similar version of Hell is suffered every day by people with forever full e-email boxes.” Nikolai Bezroukov

Ever since its inventions there has been a well known list of complaints about e-mail. Spam is certainly one of them. The use of e-mail by tele marketers is still on the increase, despite the filter software which is constantly being upgraded and further developed. Like other biological and electronic viruses, spam is gaining intelligence and proves to break through the immune systems. Porn and ads for financial services are well known genres. But that’s still old school. What is new are good willing individuals and organizations, who, without any sense of right or wrong subscribe thousands of e-mail addresses out of some database, without having consulted their niche market at forehand. These are the merits of direct marketing. In most cases it is not even possible to unsubscribe, and if one starts complaining, the conversation easily turns into a flame war. You are supposed to be happy to get informed. Friends and colleges are not sending anonymous spam, they are actually doing a great service to you! So why bother and make trouble? You have been chosen as an ideal target audience for this or that service or opinion. There is little to do against the growing tide of electronic goodwill. The right not to be informed is a yet unknown phenomena, one with a strong growth potential.

“NEW YORK–(BUSINESS WIRE)–June 8, 2000–Despite nationwide firings that resulted from improper e-mail use at the workplace, fifty eight percent of the 1,004 employees recently surveyed by Vault.com are “not worried” about their employers monitoring their e-mail accounts.”

Unwanted mail is part of the growing anxiety over information overload, an ancient decease associated to e-mail ever since its introduction in the 1970s. The amount of e-mail per day, in some circles still proudly mentioned as a status symbol, associated with the ability to master the new medium, has turned into a nuisance for most IT-workers. Folders are being created in order not be confronted with the bulk of e-mail. Online web archives are on the increase, used by those with enough connectivity. We can expect a growth in the use of customized personal filters.

With the democratization of the Internet, its default dissemination into all social spheres, the diversity of usage of e-mail is growing at a same pace. It is tempting at this point to start complaining about a loss of values. The invasion of the common folks is lowering the quality of the conversations, so they say. I won’t do that. What is interesting to observe is how new users are responding to e-mail communication in a diverse way.

All I can do here is present some of my subjective observations:

  • The more users online, the more unpredictable it gets how fast people are responding to incoming e-mail. Three weeks is not unusual. Most of the e-mail is not dealt with within the same working day. If you work on a global level, time differences have to be taken into account as well. All in all a response next day seems not very likely. So, instead of the popular mythology that we are communicating at the speed of light on a 24/7 basis, the average speed of computer mediated communication is going down, getting remarkable close to the times when overland postal systems were fast and reliable (presumed that this is not a myth either). If you really want to reach someone it is better to grab the phone. This is a clear sign of the dirty reality invading the terrain of the virtual, messing up the perfection of technology. Instead of having to be afraid of the loss of identity, locality and global standards, we can look forward to a much more carnavalesk Internet full of unpredictable ruptures and reversals of meaning.
  • More and more e-mails remain unanswered at all. This is a fascinating phenomena. Apparently e-mail has lost its aura, if it had any in the first place. It is tempting but dangerous to interpret the fact that someone is not responding as a bad sign. People are busy, or lazy, and the Internet is just a tiny aspect of their lives (which cannot be said of the IT-professionals and those reporting about tendencies in the Net). The immaterial, fluid character of the e-messages only adds to the growing indifference towards the virtual in times of its almighty economic and imaginative presence.
  • As a response to the erosion of speed and efficiency of e-mail people will do anything to grasp the attention on the other side of the screen. One can use CAPITALS, write “Important” or “Urgent” in the subject line and attach a red flag onto the mail, indicating its “high priority” status. Alternatively you can also fax a person saying that you have send an e-mail, leave a text message on the person’s mobile phone. Results of these desperate attempts vary, though the tendency is clear: for the overworked e-mail has to turned into a stress channel instead of a relieve.
  • Regional and local cultural aspects obviously have to be taken into account. National and private holidays are interrupting exchanges constantly. So does language. Limited knowledge and an uncertainty about the ability to write in English is a main reason why international communication is hampering. In some cultures it seems to be less embarrassing not to answer than to end up with a badly written letter, which will most likely will fuel global misunderstanding. The reason could be shyness, politeness or is the act of non-communication an even more sophisticated one?
  • Breakdown of connectivity on a technical level is another fact most e-mail users still have to get used to. Servers are going down all the time, everywhere, not just in the so-called developing world. Systems are attacked by viruses and hackers. Mailboxes easily get deleted, or simply disappear, specially of those using free webmail services such as hotmail.

With the next hundred million e-mail users entering the Internet over the next year, one should not get angry or disappointed about the expected disfunctionalities. The Net is as good as its users which, in many places, in demographic terms is getting nearer to the average citizen. The rapid spreading of the technology is something people have dreamed of, and anticipated throughout the last decades. In no way will the Internet alter, lift or cool down human nature so there a lot we can expect to happen, beyond good or evil, from jubilees, charities, parties and other types of celebrations to rape, murders, genocide and other known or not yet known crimes.

The quality of the e-mail communication is ranging from deep friendships, fierce debates, significant periods of silence, sudden flame wars, touching miscommunications, resulting into all too human activities such as love affairs, marriage, e-business and everything between rumors, gossip, casual talk, propaganda, discourse and noise. At best, the Net will be a mirror of the societies, countries and cultures which use it. Not a sweet and innocent, sleepy global village but a vibrant crawling and crashing bunch of complexities, as chaotic and unfinished as the world we live in.

Related URLs:

* Junk e-mail and spam http://www.sni.net/ecofuture/jmemail.html

* E-mail in organizations http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_9/williams/index.html

* On the problem of archivinghttp://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue4_9/lukesh/

* Desktop Critic: Attack of the Living E-Mailhttp://macworld.zdnet.com/1999/05/opinion/desktopcritic.html

* Old e-mail never dies http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.05/email.html

* US-Army advises on how to avoid information overload


* Information/Work Overload Annotated Webliography