Saturday, February 01, 2014

Email, or The Medium is the Dialectic, part 2

Part 1.

Email was the predominant method of interpersonal text communication in the 1990s.  As cellphones and cellular services became more affordable, SMSes became de rigueur.  At present, non-standard branded messaging services (whatsapp, bbm, snapchat) are increasing in popularity.  Perhaps, a cynic may think, because they enable more smileys.  But also, in reality, because sending SMSes internationally costs money.

Email requires a few "steps" which the busy individual of today has little time for.  One has to remember the email address(es) of the recipient(s).  One has to figure out a "Subject" of an email, which might seem like a pain when it is just a one-line message that one wants to send.  I still remember emails from friends and family with a subject line of "General" or "Misc".  In corporate settings, when sending an email is efficient, one can type the entire message in the Subject line and conclude with "eom" (end of message, or, no need to scroll to read the message itself).

Email used to be great for responding to a long message.  The earlier text-based email clients made it easy to intersperse the earlier message with one's responses.  The original sentences and paragraphs were prefixed with the ">" symbol.  The new clients (Outlook, Gmail) unfortunately, append the original message with a vertical line which cannot be "broken", and do not make it easy to split it for contextual replies.  In these newer clients, one has to manually switch to the text mode or, which is becoming increasingly common, to color-code one's replies in a strange color (blue or red).

The recipient classification (To:, Cc: and Bcc:) was intuitive and made it clear who the primary co-respondents were.  It was also clear (by having a simple prefix in the Subject line) if the message was a new one, a reply or a forwarded one.  Important messages usually contained a capitalized "URGENT" or "IMPORTANT" in the subject line.

It was easy to write a long email, split into paragraphs.  Many modern devices and messaging platforms confuse the line-feed with a command to send the message.  In Facebook comments, for example, to introduce a new paragraph one has to press Shift-Enter rather than just Enter.  What that means is that those platforms expect one to usually send just one paragraph.

Email also made it easy to introduce hyperlinks without any hyperlink being a privileged link which produced a "thumbnail" or preview.  Most modern messaging systems (even Gmail) provide thumbnails of many documents or videos which are linked to in the email.  Whether this distracts from the message is anybody's guess.  Perhaps the platform designers understood that most messages are just forwards of a link to a song or to a video, hence showing a quick preview/thumb of it might have seemed a "convenience".

Attaching images or sounds to an email message was considered a great advance.  But now, most communication between adults is just the attachment ("Look at this video", "Listen to this song", "Here, this picture").  The message is now superfluous.  Who has time to compose a sentence anyway?  And what should the sentence contain?  The message is usually a forwarded video/image/audio, and the response is a grunt or a chuckle or a re-forwarding.  Perhaps this trend was recognized early by online social media architects.  They designed their interfaces to share, rather than communicate.  Most people have little originality.  Social media platforms cater to that (vast) demographic.

Email is also great for later referral and for research.  One can have folders and labels for particular topics or interests.  Not so for the modern platforms.  Facebook, for example, groups messages by the participants.  (There is no topic/subject anyway.  The person is the topic.)

The modern platforms are having a curious effect on email.  Mailing lists have gone out of fashion.  Hardly anybody writes long messages.  There are hardly any email discussions in which many people participate.

Why?  Apart from the obvious reason that most communication these days is for the "lulz".  We can also acknowledge the advantage of modern platforms in that it is easier to see that a whatsapp message has reached the recipient's device or that a FB msg or a bbm has been read by the recipient.

One reason is that platforms like Facebook or Google+ make it easy to reach everybody in one's social circle, without one having to choose the recipients.  Secondly, it is easier to gauge the popularity of an opinion or a response on a social medium ("likes", "re-tweets", "shares"), while on email it is less dramatic.  On social media, one's comments are part of one's online personality and it can potentially provide more of an ego-fix if others validate it.

Thirdly, it requires more mental bandwidth and focus to write an email, because it actually requires one to read the original message.  Most respondents on Facebook do not refer to the original link, they chime in with their own responses/opinions about the issue.  (As an example, an article about US Immigration might invite comments from people who have gone through the immigration process but have otherwise little interest in reading the article).

Fourthly, some social media platforms make it easy to edit one's message even after it has been sent.  One can even delete it if it is deemed unsatisfactory.  An email is more final.  Once it is sent, it is sent.  It has to be composed more carefully that it can stand the test of time.

Fifthly, I believe using email makes it somewhat incumbent on the respondent to be more structured in one's thought, to organize one's thoughts and then write.  Online social media platforms are like a photo magazine.  They contain jokes, cartoons, cute videos, baby photos, and they may also suddenly contain a serious article.  The flavor is that of superficiality.  On email, however, the preponderance of text engages the "thinking" brain more and therefore costs more "brain energy".

Lastly, email is less public.  So one can be more personal and heretical in one's thoughts.  And one might be expected to be.  If one is interacting with friends on email, one cannot hide behind the defense of it being a public place and "so let's just chit-chat".  On a social media platform, one can usually only write politically correct, or impersonal, thoughts.  Hence, it is less threatening to correspond with someone over social media.  It is like talking to someone with a hundred other people present.  Much less stressful, but also likely to be mostly meaningless.  To write an email to somebody is to say that one wants to correspond with that person and is willing to be engaged.  In this age of averting the gaze of other subway passengers, that might not be a comfortable proposition.

Email is ideal for scholarly discussion between peers, even better than verbal discussions.  One can carefully choose one's words, and build a reasoned, well-structured argument.  I believe it is also great for sharing one's own thoughts and feelings (rather than someone else's), especially those of a private nature (concerns about government surveillance notwithstanding).  And of course, it is still normative for institutions and advertisers to contact individuals through email.  Any other medium requires consent, while email is the the last bastion where unsolicited messages may arrive.

Email is less of a brand, and more of a service.  While corresponding on whatsapp or bbm might be more convenient, it also means that one's history of communication, and the feature-set of the service, among other things, is tied with the fortunes of the provider.

Email can also be "self-hosted", which might be important to people who care about individual privacy and want to steer clear of corporate possession of their data.

For most people email is just a long-winded way to send a short message, and for them the more convenient newer services might actually be better.  But the more the newer services become the default, the more this kind of communication will seem like the norm, and the less one can expect in terms of long emails even from those who would have done so earlier.

(to be continued)

The Medium is the Dialectic, part 1

"Can one be enlightened on Facebook?"

This series of essays is an attempt to answer the above question and its broader cousins.

Technology dictates how we communicate, agree, disagree, defend ourselves, are heard, reach an audience, are able to refute an argument, are able to back our claims, and the way we might be exposed to new perspectives and opinions.

Almost twenty years back, in 1995, I had predicted that internet will not lead to a broadening of our intellectual horizons, but rather a narrowing of them. I reasoned that since on the internet, there is a clique for every kind of opinion, and one can find justifications for all kinds of irrational belief systems, it is going to nurture and amplify the existing biases rather than cure them. There is ample vindication available for whatever opinion one might hold, and one can easily choose to block or ignore what one disagrees with. There is little incentive for one to challenge one's existing beliefs and opinions.

An easy example is the Rotten Tomatoes website.  Let's say one watches a supposedly good film, but doesn't like it.  One might feel a little uncomfortable and inadequate.  Not to worry.  Internet comes to the rescue.  One can browse to the RT website, read reviews which pan the film, feel relieved that there are erudite people out there who also didn't like the film, and then make little effort to re-appreciate the film or to read the other reviews which do praise the film.  For this particular relief, a website like IMDb fails to deliver.  IMDb, like RT, provides an overall rating for the film, but makes it very difficult to find affirming opinions.

Internet is a great medium for information and for research, provided that is what one is setting out to do. But it is a poor medium for edification and evolution. If one is using the internet to "surf" and to "browse", it is extremely likely that one will not linger on uncomfortable content, but will quickly transfer to more affirmative regions.

Internet now provides a plethora of "interactive platforms", for want of a better phrase. Each platform, be it a static website, a personalized website, a feed, a discussion forum, a mailing list, a web-mail service, a blog, an online social network, a photo sharing website, a voting-based comment forum (e.g. reddit or quora), an online newspaper, a short-form broadcast and re-broadcast platform (twitter), a video sharing website, a publicly edited encyclopedia, a URL shortening service, dictates and enables a specific level and kind of discourse.

Just like we have different kinds of programming languages for different applications and circumstances, I believe the choice of an interactive platform on the internet is important for what we are trying to achieve.

Frequently people misunderstand the natural use of a platform, what kind of abuse a platform naturally enables, and the extent to which a platform can be useful for a certain task.

It is not uncommon to see a hundred-comment-long discussions on politics on Facebook, 2000+ comments on a newspaper article, a highly indented forwarded email about a hoax cure for heart attacks, and so on.

In the next essay, I will start by discussing email, and investigate why it is decreasing in popularity.

(to be continued)