you might have m@il

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  Electronic mail has become just a normal part of life and business. In one way, it is just another method of communication. In another way, it is one more manifestation of a completely new paradigm of communication, centred on the Internet.

We often tend to view communications media as discrete within themselves, rather than alternative platforms to fulfil a common purpose. E-mail can be seen as just another method of carriage of messages, such as the letter or the fax. The actual message content can be considered to be separate to the carrier. At its simplest, sending an e-mail is not fundamentally different to sending a letter. It is usually a short communication by one person, sent to another person, usually over some distance.

There was a case in a certain large organisation where a salesman sent a sensitive proposal to a customer via e-mail. Due to an error (human?), the message ended up in the wrong hands, causing some embarrassment. As a result, dire warnings were made regarding the use of e-mail for customer communication, due to the apparent high risk of misdirection. On more sober reflection, though, is this really any higher risk, or worse result, than a fax to the wrong fax number, or a letter to the wrong street address? Even couriers may deliver to the wrong person or address.

However, a number of other factors make e-mail far more than just a letter. It is not just the fact that it is (relatively) new, fast, or electronic that makes e-mail different to other message media.

In 1967, in The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan popularised the concept of the message and the medium becoming inextricably linked. He stated further that society is itself shaped more by the media of communication than the content. This was long before the current level of accessibility of e-mail! We now live in a new millennium; the world of the 1960s is even further behind us. "The major advances in civilisation are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur". Electronic communication is just one manifestation of the emerging "Global Village". More recently, Nicholas Negroponte has updated these ideas in Being Digital. When you dig deeper into the e-mail concept, the radical change in paradigm from the simple letter becomes more apparent.

E-mail provides a far more flexible form of communication than "snail mail". It can be more interactive, with delivery times in minutes instead of days, yet it also gives time to prepare a response, unlike the confrontation of a telephone conversation - it is asynchronous. It provides the ability to communicate at times that suit the communicators, rather than in slavish response to the demand of a ringing telephone. Yet e-mail has also taken the informality of voice communication into the arena normally occupied by the traditionally more formal written mail. The similarity to a voice conversation has encouraged a means of expressing the non-verbal emotions: "smileys" or "emoticons", such as :-). (Look at it sideways.) The informality of e-mail often includes a very loose interpretation of spelling, as well.

Within an office environment, e-mail turn-around times are usually such that written conversations can effectively take place over the course of a working day, interleaved with other activities. Alternatively, e-mail frees the recipient from even looking at messages unless it suits; e-mail never demands attention.

While e-mail may not be as immediate as a fax or Internet "chat" or instant messaging, it retains the great advantage over fax or voice messages of being a digital form of communication. More information can be carried than most people are comfortable leaving on answering systems or mobile phone messages. With e-mail, your message is composed in digital, computer-readable format, and remains in that format. A document attached to an e-mail message can be processed by the recipient's computer.

E-mail may give a level of anonymity. It is a virtual address. Identity can be hidden behind any form of nick-name. The results of this may be as misleading as in the movie You've Got M@il. The anonymity of e-mail can allow people to delve into complete fantasy. It becomes easy to adopt an invented persona, or to invent stories. The e-mail paradigm seems to lend itself to this more than earlier communication forms - chat and instant messaging take this a step further. A recent case was the Australian on holiday in the USA who e-mailed all her friends in great detail about a sudden romance, culminating in a wedding in a Las Vegas chapel. The expectant friends were surprised to learn on her return that it was a complete hoax.

An address may also be geographically anonymous. could be anywhere in the world. may appear to be somewhere in Australia, but, by using e-mail redirection, could still be anywhere in the world. It costs the same to send an e-mail across the road as across the planet. With Web-based e-mail, you can send or receive messages anywhere - you don't need to be sitting at any particular computer. A traveller can send a message home from an Internet cafe anywhere in the world.

An e-mail message can be sent equally easily to a hundred people, as to one person. Depending on how it is sent, you may see the e-mail addresses of all the other recipients. I have heard of old friendships renewed as a result of seeing a name on such an address list.

Chain "letters" and humour proliferate more easily this way - no tedious fiddling about with envelopes and stamps. Jokes go around the office quicker electronically than via the photocopier and hand-delivery; even though this tends not to be so anonymous. Of course, you get computer viruses and junk e-mail, too. Hoax computer virus warnings are a favourite. It still amazes me how many intelligent and sophisticated people succumb to the plea to "send this message to everyone you care about". These warnings achieve a different malicious intent to the bogus viruses they warn about - they flood e-mail systems.

Yet one of the most interesting features of e-mail is that it can allow contact with people that would never be in direct contact in any other way - it can be the meeting place in the global village.

Based on an article that originally appeared in the Jun/Jul 1999 edition of TableAus.

  Updated: 8 Sep 2003 To Top    

All content Copyright Keith De La Rue 1998-2004.
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