Nearly a year ago, my wife and I moved from California to the Balkans. I knew that this would involve some sacrifices, especially as far as communication with my friends and family, and that seeing loved ones would go from being an everyday event to a rare joy. It was obvious that keeping in touch would be a lot more important for maintaining relationships, but it didn’t seem like it would be a lot more work. The small country to which we were moving has some of the fastest Internet in the world, so there are no technical obstacles keeping us from being in touch with friends in America. There’s a bigger problem putting a serious damper on my correspondence, which I wasn’t even aware of before moving to a different hemisphere. At some point in the recent past, email has become nearly as archaic for most people as physical correspondence. Receiving an email and being expected to reply to it has taken on the baneful weight of an imposition. A long personal email has become something the recipient has to grudgingly deal with, like a homework assignment or being left in charge of an ex’s dogs after a breakup.
There’s a decent amount of research online charting email’s path to the status of an anachronism. More and more each year, email is something that’s used solely for work. Among the next generation of Internet users, teens, email is as popular as learning cursive and opposition to same-sex marriage. The tech press reliably releases headlines declaring email doomed, if not dead already. I didn’t learn how unpopular personal emails are from Wired, though, or from marketers wringing their hands over the inaccessibility of tweens’ wallets. Once I was no longer accessible to my fellow American by phone, it became clear that email has been dragged to the desktop recycle bin in our hearts.
It’s a shame, because if you want to communicate long-distance, email is an excellent medium. It’s not perfect—written online communication cuts out the nuances of tone present in spoken conversation, but it has no space constraints and is transmitted instantaneously. Given the popular affection for minimalism embodied in the simple design of Apple, it’s a little surprising that email hasn’t become unexpectedly fashionable: what could be more flat and clean than a big, white box ready to be filled with black sans-serif type? As soon as you find yourself alone in a strange new permanence, you have a lot to tell the folks back home. Email is perfect for laying out your ideas, comfortably rolling out a story in rich detail to the only sympathetic eyes you may have.
However, I quickly noticed that most of my friends weren’t interested in continuing an email chain beyond more than a few exchanges. Emails started getting responded to with terse, sentence-long prose, or simply going unanswered. I expected this from my friends who were teachers, working 60-hour weeks, but it happened just as often with friends who are fellow partially employed freelance writers. One non-responder could be found on Tumblr some weekends soliciting questions from strangers, in hopes of curing his single man’s Saturday-night boredom.
At the same time that emails were going unanswered, many of the recipients were telling me about the latest must-have apps that would bridge the gap between our physical locations. One friend enthusiastically boosts Instagram so he can send me pictures, one hypes Snapchat so we can chat in short bursts. Both of these functionalities are currently available to us through email, to which all can avail themselves if they so choose.
Embedded in these pitches is a certain brand of cyber-utopianism. If only we had the newest app, the reasoning goes, we’d finally have the right platform for keeping in touch. It sells users based on the idea of a glaring deficit in existing online communications technology, to be rectified with a soon-to-be-released solution. WhatsApp, for instance, bills itself as the “easiest and cheapest” way to chat with friends—finally, a way to send online messages for free! Email seems like a perfectly functional way to accomplish the tasks of sending text and pictures, so it’s hard to grasp the appeal of platforms whose only innovation over email is built-in word limitations. To those less invested in the cyber-utopian narrative, it looks less like a communications revolution than a shift in consumer tastes driven by hype.
It’s an approach to problem-solving that’s typical of Silicon Valley. Last year, billionaire tech oligarch Elon Musk proposed the HyperLoop—a technologically next-generation solution to the perceived shortcomings of California’s high-speed rail project. However, the problem with California’s in-development bullet train isn’t a lack of technology, but controversies over cost that have made the project political unpopular. Californians don’t necessarily want a supertrain built by Tony Stark, they want a train that no one has to pay for. Similarly, people aren’t lacking a way to contact their friends for free, they want to maintain as many friendships as possible with as little work as possible. These are engineering solutions to what are deficits in popular will.
Shifting the popular will towards new technology has benefits that redound chiefly to Silicon Valley and marketers. For structural reasons, email is not much friendlier to advertisers than it was during its earliest ARPANET days. It provides some utility to GoogleAds and scammers selling counterfeit pharmaceuticals, but email mostly beams messages from points A to B and back to A, or forwarded on down the alphabet depending on the whims of one’s relatives. By contrast, social media is a godsend to everyone from advertisers to government spies, so there’s a huge financial incentive in shifting as many people as possible from using email to using other programs.
Teens provide a lesson in the material benefits of this shift. Only six percent of this group use email daily, while almost forty percent never use it al all. Teens aren’t just rejecters of email, they’re also advertisers’ most sought-after demographic, due to high amount of disposable income and low amounts of what’s known in the business as “brand loyalty.” The result is an extant ecosystem in which people promote products for free, as a form of shoring up their identity. As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff said, “major parts of our economy are now depending on the social media activity of kids.” This includes everything from selling upcoming Hollywood blockbusters to one’s friends to providing demographic data to marketers via online communities. In this environment, the apocryphally sourced claim that “if you’re not paying, you are the product” has taken on new relevance. Facebook’s goal, for instance, is to be “the middle-man in all personal communication,” creating a complete picture of an individual’s beliefs, taste preferences, purchases, and browsing habits to sell to advertisers for its own enrichment. Consequently, the abandonment of email has been highly profitable as increasing numbers of people move onto corporate platforms that are optimal for selling things.
Similarly, where the joy of email is relatively plain and straightforward, social media boasts more complex psychological incentives. With features like the “like” or “favorite” buttons—simple forms of positive reinforcement—social media operates according to basic principles of behavioral conditioning. Seeing those features light up communicates to the user that your opinions aren’t frivolous, and your peers approve. It’s addictive, which keeps people coming back for more. Since this conditioning only requires a reward in order to produce a response, there’s little reason to add anything more complicated than “like,” which is why Facebook never added the “sympathy” button it has explored in the past. A new email announcing its arrival in unpretentious bold type seems relatively uninspiring compared to that.
It goes without saying that lots of people see a great deal of utility in social media; for networking, maintaining a steady hum of white noise from former co-workers, and possibly sleeping with people who wouldn’t date you in high school. So as to not sound like a Luddite, it’s probably necessary to adduce my status as a tech-savvy millennial who happens to fall in the middle of the bell curve between early adopter and principled resister. My apathy towards seemingly redundant chat programs comes almost entirely from a pathological difficulty remembering passwords.
However, just like my distance has provided an object lesson in how poorly regarded email is today, it’s also illuminated another downside of social media that’s taken-for-granted. When you live far enough from home that you don’t understand people on the street, you have a lot to tell folks back home. And when enough tell you to download something that’ll restrict messages to sentence-long thoughts, you realize that the ties social media helps people maintain are extraordinarily weak ones.
Human beings are finite creatures, with limited capacities, and we’re only capable of sustaining a certain number of relationships. The cyber-utopian dream that social media sells is of a technological augmentation to this limit. No longer do people need to be constrained by the limited amount of free time that they use to get together with friends and loved ones—with technology, one can sit at the center of a sprawling, world-wide web connecting them to everyone they’ve ever met. Like most utopian myths, it’s more fantasy than reality.
On the macro scale, researchers and activists claim that we see the effect of this in mass movements across the globe. Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a frequent commentator on digital culture, recently published a paper on how social media can weaken movements for social change. Though social media enables easy coördination, Tufekci argues, this sidesteps necessary stages of organizing, communicating, and relationship building that make a social movement strong, resistant, and long lasting.
Longtime community organizer and journalist Bruce Dixon observed the same phenomenon at work in recent American protests against police brutality, commenting that activists neglected basic steps like a sign-in sheet. “If you’re depending on Twitter, on Facebook, on corporate social media and the radio to get your crowd,” Dixon cautions, “you ain’t got no movement.” There’s some contention about how much the strength of social media ties affects relationships on the micro level. Tufekci herself argues that strong and weak ties are complementary. She, and plenty of others, might argue that fears of relationships fraying due to the way that they’re mediated through online channels may be overblown. However, just from experience, I have reason to suspect that the weak ties are overtaking the strong ones.
Certain relationships necessarily take more work than others. Social media’s weak ties are best used to augment the strong ties of face-to-face interaction. If you’re entirely dependent on current communications platforms, though, you may be in trouble. Email, and the longer, more substantive interactions it enables, has gone out of fashion in favor of corporate platforms that are better for advertisers and promise sexy spontaneity and require little investment. The popular task-management software Asana lets collaborators tick off sequential tasks as they get done and bills itself “teamwork without email”; I wonder how successful a social network modeled on the same principles would be. “Chris said hello—Feb 10” Click “You said hello to Chris—Today.” Friendship without email.
I used to reflexively dismiss the idea that attention spans have been whittled down, but I’ve now had this sentiment expressed to me in various ways by email-rejecters. It’s undeniable that Silicon Valley salesmanship is embedded with the thrill of immediacy. I suspect there may be an element of backlash to the culture of instantaneity in things like the fetish for “long-form” writing as a genre in itself, or the performative aspect of “binge-watching” (the social media announcement that someone just watched 14 hours of House of Cards is also a genre in itself). A long, thoughtful email has yet to come back into fashion, though.
Clicking a heart icon and seeing it light up in red creates a more obvious and immediate sense of satisfaction than laboriously typing out a paragraph of what’s been happening in one’s life—by design. However, the rewards of the latter are deeper and more rich, and ultimately can’t be substituted by the former. At best, scrolling through an endless feed is a fun diversion, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a substantive interaction. Moving beyond phone contact from friends and loved ones has revealed just how much that surface-level engagement has come to dominate online life. It has, however, made me embrace the simple, unsophisticated joy of email—long may it reign.