It is difficult for my generation to understand how the world worked before emails became a thing. As a 30-year-old, I remember what things were like before email was so prominent, but it was during a time when I wouldn’t have really used it anyway. Despite the fact that many young people now have smartphones before starting puberty, I suspect that few of them are using them to check their emails. Email is a boring medium with minimal intrigue to the Tik Tok generation. They don’t realise how good they’ve got it – having access to relentlessly addictive short-form content, which burns through brain cells like wildfire. When I was young, we had to play with Tamagotchis to get our digital fix, and we’d only speak to each other when we were physically together in school.
Email reminds us of a simpler time when we were grateful for any medium of communication which allowed us to speak without a delay of 3 days or more. Although the letter is often romanticised as a beautiful medium, it is annoyingly slow. It is also error-prone. Letters are easily lost, and they cannot be traced so easily. Emails build on each other, documenting what came before, making it easier to remember what the hell you said when you hurled that email over a few days prior. When reading a letter, you basically have to re-write your letter in your head as you read the response, or it won’t make sense.
Deleted emails go into a ‘Bin’ folder, so one can mull over the decision for a few days. The equivalent action in letters would be burning the paper, which probably feels more cathartic, but is frustratingly permanent. Deleting emails is anti-climatic in comparison. Burning letters contains drama and suspense, whereas you can scroll through your emails ticking little boxes then archive the entire set – how very boring. It is one area where the letter excels in comparison to email. Even setting the computer on fire won’t erase emails. They’re like the Freddy Kruger of communication.
Just as burning a letter is permanent, so are the etchings you make on the paper (assuming you are an adult who uses pens and not pencils). For the perfectionist, writing on paper is like walking a tightrope. Each successful word and sentence formed only adds to the tension, as a single mistake can lead to the undoing of the entire piece. No one likes to see a letter or word scribbled out, but there is no way around it when writing a letter. Your inadequacies are hung in front of your like fairy lights, illuminating the fact that you can’t spell ‘necessary’ correctly, always adding an extra ‘c’ and leaving out an ‘s’.
I created my first email address when I was about 11 years old, and it was something like firstname.lastname@example.org. ‘Kevs’ was a synonym for ‘chavs’ when I was younger. Wikipedia defines a chav as “a young person of a type characterized by coarse and brash behaviour.” I was a skater when I was that age, which meant that I used to hang out at different spots around the village all day, being really bad at skateboarding, but still enjoying it all the same. The chavs were seen as the enemy. They were the other group commonly seen hanging around, but we had a good reason to be where we were – we were skating and it was functional – chavs seemed to be there primarily to antagonise others. We were the easiest targets to antagonise, as they were usually older, and had a hunger for thuggery.
One time, when I was out skateboarding, a big group of chavs walked past us and kicked a ball at us. It hit my flip-phone out of my hand and I shouted, “Why the f*** did you do that?” They didn’t like this. Three of them walked over to us shouting some stuff. It was like the hyenas from The Lion King emerging from the shadows in a small pack. One of them grabbed me by the neck with one hand and tried to take the phone out of my hand with the other. I wouldn’t let go. Frustrated, he punched me in the head and walked off. The rest of the group were laughing. I was about 11 and they were at least 16, if not older. From then onwards, I had a potent dislike for people who I classed as ‘chavs’. So, of course, I had to use my private email as a political statement in protest against them. It deeply affected their image in society, and you seldom hear the term ‘chav’ used anymore, thanks to me. My email address single-handedly eliminated the group entirely, and they’re now considered a fringe group at best. You’re welcome, world.
I didn’t grasp the purpose of an email at that age. I can’t remember how much I used it, if at all, but by the time I was actually using my email and signing up for accounts on websites and other services, I realised that I needed to create a new one. My new email address is a variation on my name and some letters – very vanilla, just like an email address should be. No one is hiring down-with-kevs. Down-with-kevs isn’t winning any online giveaways or being put forward for any Nobel Peace Prices. Dan Godley isn’t either, but ‘down-with-kevs’ Godley definitely isn’t. The more successful you are in whitewashing your individuality, the better off you’ll be in the world. Create a boring email and use it to apply to boring jobs so you can earn boring money. Learn to loathe marketing lists, but never enough to unsubscribe from them. Welcome to adulthood – now check your email!
It is truly difficult to imagine how the working world worked pre-email. A hustle of people sat in offices, accosting each other at desks and feigning over endless stacks of paper. ‘Working from home’ was probably considered an oxymoron; something only possible in Sci-fi novels, in the same category as aliens or deadly mushroom viruses that turn people into zombies. Now, most of our working lives revolve around monitoring our inbox in one way or another. Though, there is a disadvantage to email… It leaves a paper trail more permanent than paper even manages. Paper is barely worthy of being included in the phrase ‘paper trail’ with how easily paper can be discarded forever. Paper has the advantage of conveniently going missing when the right people want it to. Most of us have watched a Netflix real crime series covering some untoward case, usually in America, where the key evidence went missing from the evidence room, or where a standard procedure wasn’t followed, but no one seems to know why, as the reports have all gone missing. Emails can be retrieved, to the detriment of corporations and dodgy folk everywhere.
I recently read a piece on Steven Cohen, the man who founded S.A.C Capital Advisors. In 2013, S.A.C was fined an astonishing $1.8 billion for allowing insider trading at the firm. Steven Cohen perpetuated a culture where insider knowledge was considered getting an ‘edge’ over your competitors, both inside your organisation and outside in other organisations. He encouraged the behaviour but recognised that he shouldn’t encourage it, so was notorious in the organisation for not wanting to do things over email. He preferred other, less traceable means of communication, such as a swift whisper in the ear, or a chat over a fancy meal, which probably cost more than the average person’s monthly wage. Still, even Steven Cohen’s despise for email wasn’t enough to stop the emails from doing him damage. Emails exchanged within the organisation were used as evidence in the case against S.A.C. Eventually, he was forced to close it down, but don’t worry, Steven transferred the business to a new name – Point72 Asset Management – and he isn’t doing too badly. In 2020 he purchased the New York Mets. I wonder how he feels about email now… angry, I assume.
My best friend Luke went through a period where he decided that he was going to “bring emails back.” I’d frequently look at my inbox to find an email from him, containing various images off Reddit, and a few updates on his life. He was refusing to use smartphones at the time, but couldn’t resist the cultural drift into the modern age. “There must be a way to share these memes I look at all day,” he must have said to himself, before realising that email could solve all of his problems. Then, my friend George decided to do something absolutely amazing, and shipped his motorbike to Alaska in North America, to then fly out himself, meet his bike, and spend the next year or so riding it all the way south to the bottom tip of Argentina. Along the way, he logged in to a plethora of free Wifi services, ranging from hotels to cafes to superstores etc. Not wanting to use his own email, he decided to use Luke’s. Much to Luke’s dismay, he started receiving a steady stream of “Thanks for registering for the Wifi service” emails. It was a nice way to keep up to date with where George was, but he still receives emails from random establishments in South America and probably has scammers crawling over his emails like digital cockroaches. He has since got a smartphone and has given up bringing emails back. Now he is obsessively wearing dungarees instead.
Despite its shortcomings, I like email as a medium. It is much less obnoxious than its instant messaging counterpart. Email has a natural stagger to it. We seldom send an email and expect to receive a response in a matter of minutes. At best, we give it an hour, and even that is quick. Email is naturally asynchronous in a way that instant messaging is not. Instant messaging seems to tap into some social faculty that is defunct in our brains, one which readily believes that someone hates us if they don’t message back within 5 minutes of receiving our message. Sometimes, if I have something that I think is really important, I’ll send it on Whatsapp, then sit and watch the screen, wondering why I’m not receiving a response, as if that person is physically sitting in front of me and is ignoring me. I have to remind myself that it was my decision to message them and that they have no obligation to get back to me in any timeframe, let alone 1 minute. Email strikes the right balance – you’re there and you can respond, but no one is pressuring you to. It’s all chill – send an email, have a coffee, read a magazine, check your email again – no response; no problem, I’ve got Whatsapp messages to attend to –
“WTF!!!!!!!! I’VE EMAILED YOU FIVE ENTIRE MINUTES AGO AND YOU HAVEN’T RESPONDED. AM I NOTHING TO YOU? DO I EVEN MATTER? DO YOU EVEN CARE ABOUT ME?”
Emails combine the speed of digital communication with the penance of thinking about what you say, not just throwing out whatever you feel like at any given moment, which is what instant messaging services seem to encourage. There is a hint of drama when you refresh your inbox on your phone. A ‘whodunit’ moment, where you wait to see whether your parcel has been delivered, or if someone has added you on LinkedIn. It is a magical few seconds where anything is possible, which is quickly deflated when the only things that appear are marketing materials for a clothes website you purchased a present from 4 years ago. When you’re feeling brave, you can venture into your Junk folder and read about the penis enlargement surgeries, then run away from it again because you’re worried that you’ll accidentally click on the dodgy link. Your inbox is your fortress of communication, from which you command the world. You might have even received a link to this blog in your inbox, which makes it all the more exciting to write. If you didn’t receive it in your inbox, perhaps you should subscribe to it… just a thought…