I hardly ever get e-mail these days. In fact, without my good friends at Dell, Netflix and L.L. Bean, I’d go entire weeks without getting any. In 2009, it’s come to seem as clunky and time-consuming as what we used to call snail mail. Blame the advent of texting and Twitter. A dozen years of rampant spam hasn’t helped — forever associating the e-mail inbox with Nigerian schemes and lurid porn come-ons and unsolicited offers to supersize one’s salami. “You’ve got mail!” used to be good news; now it seems more like “You’ve got herpes.”
It wasn’t always that way. I remember the dawn of the Prodigy network in the early ’90s, how wonderful it seemed to write to somebody and know that they’d get the message instantly — or at least as instantly as a 300-baud modem would allow. The graphics were chunky and the connection tenuous, but it was a heady feeling, typing out a few pithy phrases and sending them out into the ether with the press of a key. You might wander back to the computer a couple of hours later and there would be a reply. In the early days of e-mail, I remember thinking that family and friends would never again have a good excuse for not staying in touch.
With Google, it got better: Now I could reach out not only to people who were close, but to people who weren’t. I went through a phase where, during idle moments at work, I’d look up the names of old friends from work or school. If they had an e-mail address, I’d sometimes shoot them a message: “Hey, how’s it going? You may not remember be, but …”
I renewed quite a few old acquaintances that way, and with some I actually corresponded for quite awhile. But the years went by. The e-mails tapered off. At some point I think we all came to understand that there’s a reason people lose touch with each other, and it doesn’t have much to do with the lack of technology. It’s about natural affinity, and a shared world-view, and maybe a shared history extending beyond a couple of years at a rural high school or a backwater newspaper. None of those things can live on text alone; none are nurtured by forwarded jokes. When people forget each other, whether once-close friends or casual acquaintances, it’s because neither of them saw much reason not to. But that’s not something they’re going to come out and say. Better to just let things slide.
So yeah, I’m not bemoaning the end of e-mail so much as the end of thinking that it might make life better. Turns out it didn’t greatly expand my tiny circle of friends. It didn’t open up this broad range of contacts to further my brilliant career. In the case of certain family members who’ve given up on checking their e-mail, it doesn’t even obviate the need to keep envelopes and stamps around.
That’s fine. If somebody really matters, you go with what works. You can write a real letter, you can pick up the phone, you can tap on the wall between your cells. Yes, you can also Tweet, although I may be past that too. But finally, it isn’t the medium. It’s the message.