Archive for Monday, May 6, 2002

World Online Exclusive: Spinning the Web - Jury’s in: E-mail good

May 6, 2002


Singer Barry White, in a recent Arby's commercial, asks: "So why are you eating that clown food?" And a frustrating exercise in futility reveals that e-mailing Mr. White in order to answer his rhetorical question would be likely prove far easier than firing off an electronic missive to explain your preference directly to Ronald McDonald or anyone associated with him. You see, McDonald's doesn't do e-mail.

Oh, sure, I have no doubt that it's used within the company, but you can search high and low on and fail to find any sign that the company is interested in hearing from you via e-mail. This points out just how central to daily life the use of e-mail has become in two ways.

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First, consider that we've come to the point where a major corporation not making itself accessible through e-mail is annoying and seems downright antediluvian in a not entirely retro-hip sort of way. Secondly, if you take McDonald's decision to not to install a digital mail slot for its customers as a considered business choice, it suggests the company has opted out of the inevitable tsunami of e-mail that it would undoubtedly receive.

Last autumn,'s "Sci-Tech" section reported a study by information technology research giant IDC that said the number of worldwide e-mail mailboxes was expected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 138 percent, from 505 million in 2000 to 1.2 billion by 2005. At that point, according to IDC, person-to-person e-mails will exceed 36 billion per day. (Of course 20 percent of that volume will be spam directed to me, but that's a subject for another research paper.)

So what accounts for the phenomenal growth of e-mail? Operating on the assumption that I'm an adequate barometer for well, everything, I asked myself what's so good about e-mail and here's what I decided.

E-mail is cheap. My salary couldn't keep me in enough stamps to pay for all of the correspondence that I can maintain for essentially no cash with e-mail.

E-mail is fast. In fact, it's often virtually instantaneous. I can carry out whole conversations in something only slightly less "real-time" than a phone call, all the while camouflaging any less-than-cordial attitudes or exasperations my voice might betray, yet without the nagging insistence that a beeping, blinking instant messenger would present.

E-mail is environmentally friendly. I know, who really cares but still. Actually when I consider all that spam, and how easy it is to delete with a mouse click, I'm grateful for all the dead trees I don't have to carry to the curb.

E-mail is easy. If I get a card or letter, I read it standing at the kitchen counter. It's not like I sit down to answer my correspondence at a writing desk. First I'd have to decide I cared about replying, and then I'd have to remember to do it. Later I'd have to find the envelope in order to get the return address, produce a written document, find an envelope, a stamp and actually get the thing into the mail. E-mail is so seductively convenient. I answer mail using nothing more than I use to read it, my computer. By using the reply button, every piece of incoming e-mail comes with a virtual self-addressed, stamped envelope. A little typing, sometimes very little, and another mouse click rocket my rejoinder back to my pen pal.

E-mail is uniquely functional. By using "cc" and, on a larger scale, mailing lists, I can communicate with several or even thousands of people with a single piece of e-mail.

It's no wonder that e-mail has been endorsed by me, and was in turn embraced by the world.

Two weeks ago my e-mail program crashed, completely. I lost it all more than a year's worth of personal and work-related correspondence, including a lot that pertained to upcoming, quickly approaching events. Reconstructing the lost information was no cakewalk. The e-mail address of everyone I exchange e-mail with was lost as well, and in many cases the lost e-mail was also my only record of their phone numbers or mailing addresses.

The amount of energy I've expended each day over the past weeks scrambling to recover from this little disaster has been an eye-opener. I remember thinking if this isn't enough to get me to change my behavior regarding backing up my data, then nothing is. Alas, I suspect I was right, and nothing is.

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