Thursday, 13 September 2018

You Have Mail

I've been an email user for a comparatively long time. Before I retired in 2014, I had been an IT administrator within a university library since the mid-1980s, so had been using electronic mail over academic networks even before the advent of the wider internet and the World Wide Web.

I think it is now a universal experience that email in the workplace has become a problem, and not the solution it once was. It's far too easy to copy a mail to multiple recipients, and regard that as "job done".  "What do you mean, you didn't know the electricity was going to be off today, didn't you get my email?" Got it, yes; read it, no... (a real example, unfortunately). For the last decade or so at work I was receiving so many emails daily – from colleagues, work-related interest groups, not to mention the leagues of fraudsters and spoofers – that, had I decided to read them all, my job would have consisted entirely of reading and occasionally answering emails. It wasn't so very far off from being that, anyway.

My only defence was to set up numerous "rules" to divert mail from known low-priority email sources into their own inbox folders, so I could ignore them en masse and concentrate on the residual incoming mail. When I retired, I was allowed to keep my university email address, but I carried out a mass cull of work-related mailings, some of which I had kept for over a decade (and, um, some of which had gone unread for almost as long). In one folder alone, containing messages from other users of the same library IT setup as ours, there were over 6,000 (six thousand) unread emails from the previous six months. At the end of the slaughter my inbox had shrunk from a shade over 1 gigabyte to 85 megabytes.

What I hadn't anticipated was the withdrawal symptoms. Now that I am no longer a member of those various interest groups, and no longer receive that daily barrage of work-related mailings, the frequency of my incoming emails has dwindled away to a mere handful. The arrival of a new item in my inbox has become an event, like the arrival of a real letter or postcard that isn't a bill or a piece of junk-mail. I discovered that part of me actually didn't mind as much as I thought all those scattergun requests, the "me, too" mails, and the duplicated notifications ("Apologies for cross-posting..."); a certain illusory sense of personal importance and centrality can be buoyed up by that daily tidal flow of email, which has now evaporated. It's a first taste of the isolation of old age, I suppose.

There are other factors at work, too. I love email, but many people now regard it as an old, superseded technology.  If I need to send either of my kids an email, for example – because I prefer to type a lengthy communication containing important details on a keyboard rather than prodding at a phone screen, and will edit it carefully for optimal communicative elegance  – then I generally also need to send them a text, to alert them to the incoming email. When my daughter was at university I had regularly to remind her that her lecturers, mainly being old farts like me, would be expecting her to check her institutional email regularly (as in several times a day, not once a week). Like me, they had probably come to find that email hits a sweet spot between modernity and Ye Olde Worlde of typewriters and duplicated memos.

Away from work, and apart from texting, it seems social media like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter have largely replaced email in public affection. I suppose the attraction is that you can follow today's ephemeral trends while they're still hot, and enjoy the serendipitous pleasures of a semi-public, semi-private life shared with hundreds, even thousands of like-minded folk. I think of it as the equivalent of being at some eternally-ongoing festival, like a virtual Burning Man, where lurking moodily in your tent is not an option. Email, by comparison, must seem both excessively private and lacking in spontaneity; the equivalent, perhaps, of hiring the same old gîte in the Dordogne with selected family and friends. I did have a Facebook presence for a while, and checked in most days to see what my half dozen "friends" – who (weirdly, I know) were all actual friends – had seen fit to share, but I hardly ever used it myself. Eventually, I simply deleted the account. Take that, Zuckerberg! As for Twitter, I have never signed up for it, and I resent the way broadcasters like the BBC have capitulated to it, using and publicising hashtags as if Twitter were a neutral and permanent public utility, like the phone network. Which it is not.

Not so long ago (if ten years can be thought of as "not so long ago") blogging also used to be thought of as part of the "Web 2.0" social media revolution, but this is clearly no longer the case. Certainly, if my own stats are typical and to be believed (and I'm talking about Google Analytics, not the ludicrously distorted figures in Blogger's own stats)  then the number of people reading blogs has dwindled dramatically over the past few years. I mean personal blogs, of course, not the mega-blogs that are essentially free magazines, published one article at a time. This is hardly surprising, as keeping up a consistent, regular and decent-quality flow of posts demands a high level of commitment and, dare I say, some actual writing talent. Most personal blogs were unfocussed, short-lived enthusiasms that are now dead or so intermittent as to be indistinguishable from dead. Unlike this one, of course, with its tenth anniversary coming up next month (gifts of money will be fine).

Well, it's so much easier to add the ten millionth "like" to a particularly cute cat video, and feel that brief warm glow of sharing, than to figure out what you think, stick your neck out in public by writing it down, and risk the humiliation and disappointment of not being read by anyone, isn't it?



old_bloke said...

Well, I still enjoy reading your blog, though don't comment because I rarely have anything constructive to add. I suppose it's about demographics really - many of the topics you write about are bound to be of interest to other white male English pensioners who were fortunate enough to have a privileged education in interesting times, have an enthusiasm for photography and a passing experience of academic life before it turned to sh1t. Do you remember a thing called Gopher, which was going to encompass all the information in the world in a preposterous menu-based system?

I suppose if this was one of those social media disgraces, what I'm doing here is giving you a Like.

Mike C. said...

Why, thank you, old bloke, though you may have shot my fox by speaking up...

I do indeed remember gophers, not to mention Mosaic, and I also remember being trained in HTML by someone who insisted images should never be used in a website because of the bandwidth implications... What if everyone did it? He may have been right, of course.


David S said...

Mike, always enjoy reading your blog and hate commenting.
Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and so on are fine ways of making people socially isolated while giving the superficial feeling of connectedness.
The technology makes people stupid as well. A few years ago I visited the US for some photography. It seemed that everyone walked around with their eyes glued to a phone. Any question about where to find a post office, buy some clothes, locate a museum etc, met with the same response. "I don't know".
When you look up a dictionary, an encyclopaedia or an atlas (remember those three?) you also find out all the stuff you don't know. Sometimes that's important.

PS. "Shot my fox". Haven't heard that one before. We don't have foxes here in NZ. I wonder if "shot my possum" would carry the same weight?

Mike C. said...


In my former profession, I felt much the same about a lot of the automation I was responsible for introducing, replacing card catalogues, bibliographies, etc., etc. Which didn't stop me doing it, obviously... My view was that the *process* of undertaking higher education "research" (i.e. looking things up) was probably more important than the result. Reducing this to mere keyboard skills seemed a major backward step. I imagine maths teachers feel the same about calculators... Although I have to say Wikipedia *is* a superb thing.

As for "shooting someone's fox", that is a rather High Tory expression which I use ironically, meaning that someone has taken the fun out of the hunt by unsportingly shooting the object of the chase. The "sporting" thing, obviously, being to exhaust the creature by chasing it over the landscape on horseback with a pack of hounds, who then tear it to pieces, some of which you wipe on your children's faces.

"Shoot my possum" sounds like a handy euphemism to me ("she/he really shot my possum").


Huw said...

Mosaic! Gopher! Those names make me feel both young (as I was a student when I encountered them) and old (as they are now so far away).

And thank you for continuing to show your idiotic hat., Mike There are many fewer interesting blogs these days and yours is all the more appreciated for it. I think I used to come for the photography but it's different now.

I have 24,000 emails in my work inbox and have given up trying to file and manage them.


Mike C. said...

Thanks, Huw.

24,000? Even if they're all unread, at one minute each that's only about 12 weeks of working days! I should get on with it... Or retire, whichever is the sooner.


David S said...

Mike, thank you for the explanation of fox shooting. It was a model of clarity.
Having observed the world of High Toryism from the farthest distance I can manage without leaving the planet of my birth, may I observe the British boarding school has a lot to answer for?
How else to explain those teenage males who found a speech by Margaret Thatcher enough to drive them upstairs for a solo possum shoot?
An aberrant generation.

Mike C. said...


You'll get no argument from me, there. Martin Parr's excellent photo-book "The Cost of Living" (1989) is a definitive horror-show from that time.

Mind you, you'll find no bigger rebel than a public-school rebel. I count several such among my friends, and I do them the favour of ignoring their unfortunate background.