geert lovink on Tue, 13 Jun 2000 17:18:28 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Sweet Erosions of E-mail

Sweet Erosions of E-mail
Ups and Downs on the Communication Front
By Geert Lovink

Dedicated to

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 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

- 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

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
* E-mail in organizations
* On the problem of archiving
* Desktop Critic: Attack of the Living E-Mail
* Old e-mail never dies
* US-Army advises on how to avoid information overload
* Information/Work Overload Annotated Webliography

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