Thursday, July 2, 2009

E-mail: The 8-Track of the Internet Era

My parents have mostly figured out the Internet, but it took them a while. Not so long ago, my dad used to complain about "e-mail people," or folks (like me, frankly) who preferred e-mail communication to picking up the phone for a chat.

I get and have always gotten the e-mail thing. It's structured--in a phone conversation, there's always the risk that I'll get sucked in by somebody who's bored, lonely or just otherwise wants to chat for a while, and I'm not a very phone-chatty person. (I am, however, a fairly polite person, so it's not always easy for me to break away from a conversation.)

Also, it's easier to make excuses or communicate awkward messages over e-mail. "I was just really sick" or "I just got caught up at work" can sound (and be) so insincere voice-to-voice, but it's believable enough spelled out in pixels on a screen. Oh, and I shouldn't forget--I can't postpone a phone conversation while it's happening, but I can let an e-mail sit for days...weeks...months before responding to it. And, sadly, I often do. Eventually, though, I almost always respond, at least to personal e-mails--a very important point to make here. And if somebody I haven't heard from in ages e-mails me (which almost never happens anymore), I make a point of getting back to that person reasonably quickly.

But all of these things, all of the wonderful advantages of e-mail over voice, are pretty much moot now because talking about e-mail makes me sound as old-fashioned as my dad did when he talked about "e-mail people." Now, communication is all about social networking. Seriously--go to the last bullet point of this article from Nielsen Online...or just read the next sentence, which is the bullet point itself:
In February, social network usage exceeded Web-based e-mail usage for the first time.
That's February 2009, for those keeping score. And that means that, for now and likely for the future, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn and friends are downloads to e-mail's CDs, CD players to e-mail's cassettes, cassettes to e-mail's 8-tracks... You see where we're going with this. E-mail is out. And I'm now a Luddite. Where did I put that VCR?

(A brief note here: let's not even talk about texting, or SMS, as our Euro friends call it. I simply don't have the thumbs or the patience for it, and I don't have or want one of those super-cool phones that would let me type in a reasonably normal fashion. I have a netbook, which is about as cool as I get...for what it's worth.)

Oh, I'm on Facebook. I got on it in order to keep up with friends who...wouldn't keep up with me on e-mail. (This goes back to my point about responding via e-mail to friends I haven't heard from for a while...) And Facebook worked for that purpose. Which was great. Facebook also let me catch up with some folks I hadn't heard from or thought of in years...which has been a mixed bag at best. Some "friends" I was happy to catch up with again; others I would have preferred to have forgotten altogether.

I'm on LinkedIn, too, hoping that someday the editor of Wired or the director of publications at some well-respected university (I'd love to do that work) will see my entire CV (posted, as it is, on my home page) and say, "I've got to hire that guy!" It hasn't happened yet. In fact, nothing has happened yet on LinkedIn for me, but at least it doesn't bombard me with updates about what some girl I went to high school with and barely remember is making her bratty little kids for dinner. (OK, so maybe the kids aren't bratty...actually, they probably are.)

I've skipped MySpace, as most people older than 21 seem to these days, and I can't even begin to imagine Tweeting. I've got, as we'd say in Texas, a whole 'nother post coming up on Twitter (maybe two), which I'll get to one of these days when I'm in a really solid rant mode. I'm only in a casual rant mode tonight.

Anyway, back to e-mail...or, more appropriately, not back to e-mail, since most people seem to have largely abandoned it for social purposes. I like e-mail. I like it because it's simple, direct and easy to manage. I like it because I know the protocol for it--there really isn't much of one. On Facebook especially, any message or "wall" posting seems to carry the urgency of a text or a phone call--people wonder what's wrong or why I'm being such a pill if I don't respond to their Facebook missives fairly quickly. With e-mail, as I've said before, pretty much anything goes (or went) in terms of response time. There's just more freedom with e-mail, or at least the perception of greater freedom.

(And, yes, I do realize that the non-urgent, potentially anti-social nature of e-mail is one of the reasons that it's dying as a social medium and giving way to the awkward-party atmosphere on Facebook. But, as Lynyrd Skynyrd said so eloquently in "Tuesday's Gone," sometimes, "I just want to be left alone.")

I also like e-mail because I can log into it without having to wade through fascinating blurbs of information about what color M&M some kid I went to junior high school with would be if, indeed, he could be an M&M. Oh, I know what you're thinking--it's easy enough just to skip the welcome screen and jump straight into Facebook e-mail. But with regular ol' e-mail, I don't have to skip the welcome page at all--or occasionally get caught up in reading it for longer than I'd like to admit. And e-mail's easier to read.

All of this is probably making me sound like some sort of misanthrope or anti-social hermit, and I'm far from being either. I have friends--some real, some online, some on Facebook. I like spending time with them. I just don't like to have to be at an online party all the time in order to keep up with people I like. Fortunately, some of my better friends have resisted Facebook or are sticking mainly with communicating via e-mail. Hopefully they'll keep holding out.

The other day, I sent an e-mail of a funny Daily Show clip (here it is) to a bunch of friends and got only one response. A friend--the one who responded by e-mail--posted the same video on Facebook and got tons of responses. Fair enough, maybe the friends I e-mailed were simply following the e-mail protocol I love so much and ignoring my e-mail or choosing not to respond (or respond after a long delay). That's fine...if that's the case.

But my fear is that they didn't see the e-mail at all because they don't use e-mail for social interaction anymore. They use Facebook, Twitter, of those things, anyway, almost exclusively. Some place, in any case, where I don't want to have to go in order to share things with people or have things shared with me. Some place where I'll have to wade through a bunch of junk as soon as I get there. Some place that is taking the place of e-mail. Maybe my dad was right: I guess I'm just an e-mail person after all. Oh, for the good old days...

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