The E-Mail Chronicles

Compelling or dull, straightforward or evasive, circular or pointed; it's a lifeline.  We all get too much of it -- and it's still not enough.  It reaches across continents in second, bringing good news as well as bad -- plus data, more bad news, more data, gossip, more good news, heartbreak, and joy.  It allows us to organize our work and correspondence with almost frightening efficiency.  It can set lovers up for life -- and break hearts for years.

There sure is a lot of it, and more and more and more and more all the time.  Jupiter Communications reports that in 1996, we sent 36 million a day -- a number that went up to 113 million last year, 177 this year [1998], and is estimated to reach nearly half a billion a day in 2002.  That's because there are so many of us using it online and more to come: In 1995, according to Scott Reents of Cyber Dialogue, 83 percent of adult online users were using it -- nearly 34.4 million of us.  This year the figure has gone up to 86 percent (46 million online users).  Reents projects that more than half of American adults will be doing it in 2003.

It's e-mail, of course, and it makes communicating with others around the globe or down the street as easy as tapping, pointing, and clicking.  Pretty soon just about everybody will be using it (if they're not already).

So tell us, e-mailers, what makes it so alluring, so inviting, -- and so dangerous?  And what's it doing to us, to our professional lives, and to our love lives?

Revenge of the Geeks

Sometimes it brings a culture conflict to the workplace.  "We have managers who hate it and managers who love it," reports one director in the U.S. Treasury Department.  "We introverts tend to be very comfortable with e-mail because it gives us time to formulate our thoughts and say exactly what we mean, and perhaps be a little more frank than we'd dare to be face-to-face, when we tend to get tongue-tied.

"But it's not for my boss, who highly extroverted.  He hates e-mail -- he would much rather walk around and talk to people.  And he would much rather argue with people in meetings, because he gets the floor in a meeting and doesn't let go of it.  He's also uncomfortable with the way it breaks down organizational boundaries, since folks can communicate at all levels without having to go through intermediaries."

Practice Safe Text

Be careful what you send.  An anonymous correspondent sends this unfortunate story: "A coworker of mine was accidentally 'outed' at work bu e-mail.  He copied a Netscape configuration from a coworker and sent e-mail to some friends without changing the preferences -- leaving the return address of the guy in the cube next to him in his e-mail.  His friend replied to the e-mail with a note that could only have been sent by a gay lover (the salutation was 'Hey girl!!')).  Needless to say, the guy was quickly taken out of the closet.  Since this was a very 'PC' environment, nobody cared, but it was embarrassing for the guy nonetheless."

It's more likely that you'll mistakenly send an unfinished draft of something that's a little more inflammatory (or amatory) or plain dumber than you mean it to be.  Worse, you might send it to the wrong person.  There was a minor scandal in one federal government agency when fter one worker sent an e-mail to arrange a long lunch date with another employee.  Unfortunately, the proposed assignation got sent out to the agency's entire 2,000-member staff.

Lamar Graham, the founder of Conde Nast's  Swoon, says, "I make it a practice of writing the e-mail before I put anything in the address line, so that if I accidentally hit the Send button, it won't sent.  And so I write the whole e-mail, and then I decide, 'Am I going to be committed or arrested if I send this?,' and if the answer is 'Yes,' then I nuke it and don't send it.  if it's OK, then I fill in the 'send-to' area."

And if you're in a situation where you can't afford to let anyone know what you're doing, encrypt your e-mail.  Of course, as Nancy Capulet, author of "Putting Your Heart Online," points out, irony and suggestion can sometimes be the best privacy key: "I tell people if they want to say something very intimate, try to conceal it so that other people might not know what you're saying, even if your correspondent does."

Read carefull.  And reread.  Brenda Ross, a digital artist who hosts a couple of dating-information pages on the Web, remembers a male English friend who had just moved to Santa Monica and had run a search through a dating service: "One of them turned out to be very local to him, and she had blond hair, and they'd write back and forth, and she said, 'Well, you know I kind of look like a linebacker.'  And he thought that meant cheerleader, because he hadn't lived here very long.  They arranged to meet at a pub, and he walks in and sees her, and althought he's 6 feet, 2 inche, she outweighed him.  So she wasn't what he expected.  A few months later, he's in a grocery store with his roommate, and they're near the frozen-food section, and who does he see coming down the aisle?  You guessed it.  He actually climbed into a freezer to hide from her."

Use the strengths of e-mail to your advantage.  Often a pointed virtual reply is better than a face-to-face one.  Marisa Bowe, editor-in-chief of the online zine Word: "Sometimes e-mail can be really helpful if you're fighting with somebody because you have a little more distance -- you can read the e-mail and not respond to it right away. You can wait a day and then answer it."

Reserve judgement -- because although it may be a new medium, some things never change.  Says Capulet, "One advantage about e-mail is you can ignore quetsions that you don't want to answer.  In conversation, if someone asks you about something, it's harder to avoid the question -- in e-mail it's really easy, if somebody asks you, 'So what happened in your previous marriage?' you can just pass over it in your reply and go on to something else -- something you can't do in person."

It fits Marisa Bowe like a glove.  The editor-in-chief of the online zine Word says, "For us it's invaluable, because I rule by consensus much of the time.  So I can constantly send articles or URLs to the staff and ask, 'What do you guys think?' and poll everyone instantly.  Then we'll all have this conversation online, but we don't have to wasted time at a meeting.  We almost never have meetings.  I hate meetings, so that's great."

Still, as anyone who's bought a laptop along on a vacation knows, it's awfully easy to succumb to the temptation to plug in when it's raining or when you start to feel bored, especially if you know there are office e-mails that can be easily answered.  Attorney Jim Boudreau, of the Philadelphia la firm of Moran, Lewis & Bockius, says, "E-mail has made a dramatic difference in my professional life -- I can bill 30 to 40 percent fewer hours per client as a result of it.  But as a quality-of-life issue, I'm not so sure.  It's just so easy to log in when you're at home or when you're supposed to be on vacation."

In other words, e-mail is a treadmill that can be hard to stop.  Which is part of what Penn State Abington College associate professor of psychology Peter Crabb resents about it.  "We need a line between our work lives and our private lives," he says, "and e-mail obliterates that line.  After a long day of work, I come home, and if I check my e-mail, I often find directives from my bosses.  Now, I thought I had left that all at work.  But here I am at home, getting orders from my bosses.  That's intrusive."

Crabb -- who's no newbie, having used e-mail since 1990 -- says, "E-mail is not authentic communication.  We're tricked into thinking that it's possible, but this is not authentic human communication.  This is technology.  I don't want to turn back time, I don't want to go backward, but I do want to point out that every time we have a technology like e-mail deployed, it comes with a whole host of problems for us, and the users end up having to solve those problems.  So we have to find way -- they might be different for every person -- to manage how we use e-mail, to do it in a way that is cost-effective, doesn't waste our time, doesn't violate our privacy, and that actually serves our intended purposes."

Love Letters in the Silicon Sand

The more personal our e-mail gets, the more we like it.  In fact, something about e-communicating with friends and lovers makes it our favorite application of all.

Kristie Afzali, a writer in her mid-twenties, lives with her husband in a small apartment in New York City.  They have two computers.  Recently, she's found herself exchanging e-mail messages with her husband across the apartment.

To hear her talk about it, it's an escape from bad verbal habits -- a way to make communication more careful, articulate, and direct at the same time.  "You don't get caught up in just making conversation," she says.  "Plus, you get someone's full attention, which you don't always when you're talking to them.

"It started out as just playing around.  But we've had really substantial discussions that way -- which might not have been possible without stripping away the body language and patterns of speech that sometimes get in the way of real communication."

A good e-mailer uses the tools of the writing trade: wit, conciseness, and above all, Bowe says, "a good sense of your audience, like a stand-up comedian has."  When everything works, personal e-mail is matchless: two individuals communicating peaceably, trading thoughts, differences, and virtual tokens of affection amid a billion buzzing electrons.

Cyranos on the Net

If you happen to be looking for that special someone to communicate with, there's never been a medium as enticing.  And with would-be lovers encountering one another online, e-mail has become the medium of exchange -- the best way for two strangers who've never met to get to know "the real person."

If you're a good writer, your pc can make you a regular electronic Cyrano.  Nancy Capulet, author of "Putting Your Hear Online," says: "Now, with online relationship, the writers are the Rolls-Royces -- and the good-looking people are the Chevys."

Of course, as we all know, it doesn't always work like that.  Though blind communication is appealing, what you don't see isn't always what you get.  For instance, Capulet (a pseudonym) was encouraged to correspond with a man by mutual friends.  In no time, she had a frenzied, obsessive e-mail relationship -- "two months of five e-mail messages a day."  But the payoff fizzled.  "The moment we met was OK," she says.  "But then things didn't take off from there, and I was just so surprised, and horribly let down.  It was awful."  Now she sees it as a cautionary experience: "While I was e-mailing him, there was nothing to disappoint me.  I didn't see a real person... After that, I made sure to pick local people from the matchmaking services, and I made sure to go to the telephone a lot quicker."  Capulet is happily engaged to someone she met and corresponded with online.

Hank-E Pank E

Capulet continues: "I just ran into a man recently I'd first met 10 years ago, and he said, 'You know, there's a dark side to this -- it breaks up marriages.'  And I realized he was talking about himself.  An old girlfriend from college wrote him out of the blue, and they started sending e-mail back and forth.  Neither of their marriages was going well, and they, ah, shred experiences."

You know the rest.  "They'd tried various ways of contacting each other," Capulet says, "His wife found out after the woman who lived next door said to her, 'I think it's so cute the way your husband goes out on his bike to use his cell phone.'  Meanwhile, the other woman's husband had fond the e-mail messages they'd exchanged on her computer -- I was kind of surprised to see they hadn't encrypted their e-mails.  And then they decided to see each other when she was going to be in town, and now his marriage is broken up; he's filed for divorce, and it's all because this woman looked him up.  But they're both excited about their lives.

Would it have happened without e-mail?  Maybe not. Or maybe technology only hastened things.  As the editor of Conde Nast's Swoon, Melissa Weiner, puts it, "Take it out of the electronic world and bring it back into the world before e-mail and the Internet.  You could be dating someone, an dit could be going really well -- and then all of a sudden, it ends.  And you don't know why.  Relationships are relationships, and there are ups and downs -- and they're wonderful and they're difficult and they're unpredicatable, whether it's the online world or the outside world."

E-mail, You-mail

If no one's written an Elements of E-Mail Style, it's because e-mail speaks for itself: If your message gets across, you'll get a response.  Or maybe it's



versus Smileys



Lamar Graham, Associate Professor of Journalism and Director of Digital Journalism at New York University:

"I won't claim that I've never used one, because I probably have. A couple of years ago they were more flagrant than they are now, but I seldom if ever use them, I see fewer people using them, and in general I do sort of feel strongly that they're stupid.

"I know that the idea is that people use them to convey emotion that they couldn't otherwise convey -- that's just means to me they're poor writers. As a professional writer I look at emoticons as a crutch. But as a civilian, I still think they're a crutch.

"People need to be cognizant that what they write can be taken in different ways, and therefore they need to be precise. I mean, a lot of times you'll see somebody make a really harsh or smart-assed or cutting comment, and then attach a little smiley face at the end, as if that somehow indemnifies or absolves, and I think that's unacceptable - say what you mean, and mean what you say.

"I try to write pretty precisely, and I hope that people who write to me will do the same -- or else, call me."


Aleta, Web diarist ( and undergraduate at the University of Toronto:

"I understand the anti-emoticon feeling, I just don't agree with it. They are very annoying when they're used excessively by people who can't effectively use language.

"It can be really hard to express yourself through written words alone, and I would take issue with language purists. Since computers and e-mail are used for such informal purposes, I don't think it's necessary to get all tight-assed about the way text is used.

"As far as using them to absolve yourself, well, I think this taps into a lot of the ideas about the way women communicate -- there's a sort of percieved duplicity about it, and for some reason emoticons tap into male fears that women aren't playing straight with the world. That's kind of funny.

"You can use them as good idiot detectors as well. If you're communicating with someone you don't know very well, and you say something like, 'Yeah, I think you're a real bitch when you do that'


," and then he asks, 'Are you serious?' -- well, then you sort of think, 'hmm, maybe they're an idiot.' 

because the rules are still evolving for these hyperefficient letters set free from paper, bad handwriting, and the post office.  Or perhaps it's because, as the single most individually rewarding thing the Net has to offer, it's so effective that we've barely begun to understand how it's changing our business and personal lives.

E-mail has brought thoughtful, literate exchange to an unprecedented level of quality as well as bulk: Words are back in style.  Text, once seen as a constraining bore, turns out to be pretty liberating when it's in the right hands: yours.