copyright notice
accesses since April 2, 1996

Hal Berghel's Cybernautica

"Reflections on E-mail"

This week I saw that the cover feature of a popular pc magazine 
was dedicated to electronic mail.  At first I couldn't believe 
it.  You talk about a dull topic. Electronic mail is to 
cyberspace what conventional mail is to communication - an 
unexciting and mundane medium that we love to hate.  

It isn't that it's unwanted. Quite the contrary, for many of us it's impossible to live without. But like so many indispensable technologies (the telephone and television come to mind) it can be both irritating and a hazard to mental health. Devoting the cover to e-mail is akin to featuring the latest telephone styles from Southwestern Bell in a four-color magazine foldout. More than boring, it's de classe.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I warmed up to the idea that e-mail deserves some additional discussion. Not in the sense of the cover feature, which really amounted to a product review, but from the point of view of it's role in human communication. Many issues in digital communication remain poorly understood at this point. The important issues are not technological, however, but rather social and cultural.

Take for example the art of e-mail etiquette. Books are written about it. Almost everyone has an opinion about it. Codes of conduct have been proposed for it. E-mail etiquette remains an important issue for cybernauts for it deals with thorny issues in inter-personal communication which will have broad impact in future technologies.

The reason that we need to keep this dialog in network etiquette alive is that e-mail, like conventional mail, involves information exchange in the absence of the customary response cues. In-person communication is rich with cues. Eye contact, gestures, voice patterns are all laden with information which provide feedback on the effectiveness and efficiency of the information exchange and on the temperament of those involved.

These cues also provide a contextual foundation for the social experience which may be as important as the information itself. With mail - snail or electronic - these cues are missing. E-mail has actually become the proving ground of inter-personal communication without conventional cues! Conventional mail was never much of a test bed because it lacked immediacy. Our experience with e-mail is our best chance at coming to understand the underlying dynamics of not-in-person communication.

A second unresolved issue is how society will deal with the second (digital) onslaught of junk mail. Life was simpler when mail was sorted in mail rooms of trains. In those days, the cost of sending unwanted mail made it prohibitively expensive. Modern computer technology brings the cost of junk mail down to the point where it becomes profitable to send it out to very large audiences. Let's not forget that most mail, measured both by weight and piece, is unsolicited.

Our experience with E-mail is following in the steps of the bulk- mail model. Where in the first half of this century the public might have been tempted to voluntarily place their names on mailing lists for sources of new and exciting information, inundation by junk mail discouraged that practice since the 1960's. Where in the 1970's we may have placed our e-mail addresses on distribution lists and subscribed to bulletin boards for the same reason, inundation by electronic junk mail discourages this practice today. In both cases we found that what seemed like a good idea at the time became a bad one over time - and for much the same reasons. It appears that we are slow to learn from the past.

So, I was wrong. Far from being an dull topic, e-mail remains interesting. The interesting aspects of e-mail get to the core issues of personal productivity, efficient uses of our time, and the social costs of technology-based communication, to name just a few.

Where we went wrong with bulk mail was in focussing on the capabilities and efficiencies that the computer age made available to the exclusion of the social impact. As in so many other cases, we saw the technology as an end rather than a means. In doing so we never considered the broader social issue of what was the collective value of wasted time involved in hauling the stuff around - first to the post office, then to the home or office, then to the landfill - or sorting through it just to discard it. Five minutes per day times a few hundred million people. You get the idea.

One proposal has been to charge for e-mail by the packet (see the last installment of Cybernautica - "Life in a Packet Sized World") in much the same way that the Post Office charges by the piece. On this view, one seeks to reduce the bulk by increasing the cost of transmission. Would that have much effect on marketing by bulk e-mail? It isn't clear.

In the world of direct mail, there is a cost elasticity which is driven by an interdependence between competition, media expense and postal rates. They all figure into the equation on whether or what kind of bulk mail is justified. Competition will keep overall costs down. Media expense will keep wastes down. Postal rates will keep distribution costs down. If postal rates are doubled, the increases in distribution costs will be passed along to the consumer since they presumably affect each competitor equally. If media expenses are halved, the cost of distribution still discourages excessive waste. What is more, bulk mail has different effects when used to gain market share than product approval. It isn't at all obvious what the natural dynamics of bulk mail are. The fact that there is no physical media distributed in e-mail further complicates any comparison.

So e-mail is providing us with a marvelous perch from which to view the study of not-in-person communication. Let's hope that we learn more this time around.

Meanwhile, I am advocating the concept of "e-mail vouchers" (you heard it in PC AI first!) whereby we get paid a fee by the information provider to process unwanted messages. I know that I would feel a lot better about unwanted e-mail if I knew that I was getting paid to look at it. Let's start a movement.