3.490 nature of e-mail (62)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Sun, 24 Sep 89 15:25:33 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 490. Sunday, 24 Sep 1989.

Date: Sat, 23 Sep 89 02:51:51 EDT
From: DONWEBB@CALSTATE (Donald Webb)
Subject: Fraktured hearts, etc.

[The following has been extracted with permission from a personal note
to me. Any further discussion on e-mail would be welcome by many, I'd
guess. --W.M.]

[You] "an e-mail discussion has conversational elements (unlike a
letter, say) and so is a genre that requires something more than
words -- as distinguished from metatextual commentary"

You've neatly summed up a phenomenon that has been noticed by many
if not all regular users of e-mail, namely, that it can communicate
more powerfully than a letter, though perhaps less so, or in other
ways, than a telephone call.

Why should this be? Because e-mail transmits enormous amounts of
information very quickly and at low cost. Indeed, quantity and speed
depend largely upon the sender's writing and typing skills. The reply
time can be so short that, as you and others have noted, e-mail can
become qualitatively different from postal correspondence, despite
superficial similarities, and take on characteristics of an oral

To quote a colleague with whom I've discussed the subject: "In the
case of surface mail, given the time lag, ideas tend to ripen, grow,
perhaps change, so that when the subject is taken up again, it may
wander off in quite a different direction then that taken at the
beginning. With e-mail, you can stick to the main path, any deviations
are done consciously, voluntarily. This is how e-mail ressembles
conversation: immediate feedback."

If you'll permit an analogy, e-mail is to a conversation as letter mail
is to a formal address or speech delivered to an assembly.

What does an oral conversation have that e-mail does not? Tone of
voice and body language. "Emoticons," as well as innovative
punctuation and metacommentary, are attempts to supply in visual
shorthand emotional overtones that are handled perhaps more at
length in postal correspondence or omitted altogether.

The point of this discussion is obvious to many but not, I think, to all.
It is quite appropriate to use e-mail as a quick and cheap means of
sending formal communications, such as memoranda, letters, papers,
announcements, computer programs, etc. But those who restrict
themselves to that are missing a lot. While the telephone may have
supplanted written correspondence to a large extent, e-mail has
revived it with a vengeance. It will be interesting indeed to see how
the genre develops.

Don Webb