: ) when you say that, pardner – email and the taming of the electronic frontier

Besides the web page, computers have spawned a number of other new genres: email, which is neither phone call nor letter; instant messaging, which goes a step beyond email; and the latest, the blog, a kind of web page on steroids. WeÕve had the rare opportunity of watching these genres form in our own lifetime – itÕs a little bit like being present at the birth of stars. Each new genre emerged from an initial chaotic state and coalesced over time, developing its own conventions and standards as its community of users grew and began to self-regulate. Email was the first of the digital genres, and like the phone call before it, it has probably had a tremendous impact on our communication practices.


While many of us wouldnÕt dream of starting the day without email and a latte, the early days of email were rough and uncivilized, a virtual electronic frontier where not just fancy coffee, but any hint of food or drink was strictly banned from the computer clean room.

            There wasnÕt much email in the mornings either. Email in those days was still a long way from replacing the phone call and the letter, not just because it was new, but because, like the first phone calls (and, presumably, the first letters as well), it was at best a very clunky form of communication. 

Mainframe computers were designed to run numbers, not words, and the first computer prose was written despite, not because of, the technology.  Computer keyboards resembled typewriters, only not quite. Text was all lower case, or sometimes, all upper, because some early computers didnÕt allow shifting on the fly to create the occasional capital letter the way typewriters did. (Though, to be sure, the first typewriters didnÕt have shift keys either.) Worse, text was almost impossible to revise, so typos went uncorrected. And there were plenty of typos, since even the best touch typists were tripped up by the computerÕs key arrangements. Given the technical limits of computers from the 1960s, itÕs no surprise that spelling didnÕt count for much in informal documents like the messages that programmers sent to one another while they waited for their programs to compile, or that the conventions of grammar and punctuation were only loosely observed.

Considering the circumstances under which they were produced and read, the first electronic messages were quick and dirty, short and not always particularly sweet. The format of email, such as it was, was informal too: there were no greetings or farewells – messages just began. When names were used, it was first-name only. The idea was to get in and out fast, take up as little bandwidth as possible, and get on with your life.

At least that was the image that the early emailers wanted to project: theirs was a shoot from the hips prose that identified them as a new breed of men (and they were, mostly, men) on the cutting edge of a technology that was about to remake the world using language dressed just like they were, in t-shirts, jeans, and sandals. Walt Whitman, the nineteenth-century American poet who celebrated just this kind of unbuttoned language, would have been proud to see the early emailers rejecting Òschool-marmishÓ letter-writing rules in favor of an imaginary frontier style which branded them as mavericks, thinly disguising what they really were, nerds taking their revenge on the refined, Eastern literary world at last.

But there is another side to the story of early email: the button-down, corporate communications side where letter-writing rules mattered, where vice presidents and account managers, not rogue programmers, sent polite and well-punctuated memos announcing meetings or discussing projects over company intranets, clusters of computers linked together for the use of employees only. These white-collar emailers favored conventional spelling and usage; they keyed in the customary forms of letter-writing politeness like the salutation and the polite close; and they revered the language of rulebooks.

Unfortunately, thereÕs not much except peopleÕs memories to tell us how many of the emails of the 1960s took the law into their own hands, stylistically speaking, and how many were indistinguishable in tone and format from the more conventional types of interoffice correspondence. Access to mainframes was limited and expensive – it would be a good twenty years before the personal computer turned email into a mass medium. Besides, email, like early phone calls, was considered a fleeting and impermanent form of communication. It wasnÕt printed out or even saved on computer tapes reserved for the most important data (floppy disks, a more personal and portable form of storage, would come later).

But even if many of the first emails were pinstriped, not lawless, the perception grew up that email was the new voice of the electronic frontier. No matter if you were in the wild West of Cupertino, Redmond, and Austin, or scattered along Rte. 128, just west of Boston, the cowboy image of email prevailed. This was a genre whose convention was to flout convention, and emailers could earn their spurs by intentionally misspelling, omitting commas, and choosing vocabulary that was more rough-hewn than business-like.

Then a combination of developments – like the coming of the railroads – turned Silicon Gulch into Silicon Valley, and thus began the closing of the electronic frontier, at least so far as email was concerned. Favorably-priced and easy to use personal computers tempted more people to jump into wordprocessing, and it wasnÕt long before these newcomers discovered email. A new breed of dudes and city-slickers came to cyberspace with their conservative textual conventions intact, and they proceeded to set up housekeeping on the Internet.

Immediately, feuds began to break out between the experienced computer users and the newbies, the contemptuous label given to those who had just begun to use WordStar or Volkswriter, who knew the importance of effective business correspondence, and who wanted to do email right. While it wasnÕt exactly the cow punchers vs. the sheep ranchers, the lawless email pros quickly found themselves outnumbered by eager city slickers anxious to obey the laws of the new email community they were joining so they wouldnÕt look like amateurs.

It did no good to explain to the newbies that the electronic frontier preferred its own rough justice to the rules of the textbook. Bad spelling, like dirty fingernails and casual dress, had no place in the computerized corporate office. On top of this, crusading newspaper op-eds lambasted click-and-send, spell-as-you-go email for destroying the English language and lamented the fact that computers were turning the nationÕs youth into mindless hooligans who would rather email than write a book report for school.

Critics quickly warned that the speed and easy availability of email encouraged haste, made people lazy with their words, and was – paradoxically – both completely impersonal and overly informal. Such complaints persist today. A recent report issued by the National Commission on Writing quotes one government official who complained,

E-mail is one of the leading causes of miscommunication . . . . The sender is composing on the spot. You might do a spell-check, but you canÕt do a Òthought-check.Ó ItÕs like blurting out something without thinking it through, or considering how itÕs going to be understood by the recipient.

Another dismisses e-mail as Òjust a higher order of Instant Messaging,Ó despite the fact that IMÕs popularity is more recent than emailÕs:

The use of e-mail has had a negative effect on writing clarity. . . . Punctuation has disappeared. Nobody uses a period. ThereÕs no capitalization anymore. ItÕs more like a stream of consciousness and often hard to follow.

[National Commission on Writing 2005.]


But the Luddites have no need to fear that email signals anything as momentous as the death of civilization, or even the end of book reports as we know them. The new generation of emailers, which quickly became the majority, was concerned with the niceties of format, style, and usage, and guides to ÒnetiquetteÓ began to overrun the Web. Netiquette was the new term coined to describe the Emily Post-style discussions of proper email. HereÕs part of one reporterÕs list of the doÕs and donÕts of the new genre:


á       DonÕt shout. Whenever you type in capital letters, itÕs considered ÒshoutingÓ on line because itÕs exceptionally hard to read, just like real shouting is hard to listen to. . . . You wouldnÕt think of shouting, flying off the handle or repeating everything everyone says in polite company, now would you? Yet some of you never think twice about doing just those things – and more – on line.


á       Keep your missives short, to the point, and tightly directed.


á       [DonÕt] fire off a hasty note . . . . The rule to follow: engage brain, THEN engage fingers. [Here Newman violates her own rule against writing all caps, but hey, nobodyÕs perfect.]


á       [DonÕt] quote the other personÕs entire message – especially if your response is merely ÒI agree.Ó


á       DonÕt . . . stuff the bottom of [your] messages with everything from cute quotes to every phone number [you] have. These Òsignature filesÓ . . . can get annoying . . . when thereÕs a two-word message followed by a huge chunk of clutter.


á       Do pay attention to posterity. The messages you post . . . are often saved by the people that receive them. . . . Do you really want someone five years from now reading your note to your mistress? Or your description of your drunken frat party? . . . DonÕt put it on line if you wouldnÕt want to see it on television or in the newspaper.

[Newman 1996]


Manners werenÕt all that mattered on email. Spelling counted, too. The ÒcorrectÓ spelling of the word email itself was up for grabs, with lexicographers at Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary opting for the hyphenated e-mail, while the Oxford English Dictionary chose solid email for the noun and hyphenated e-mail for the verb, without explaining this apparent inconsistency.

Suddenly the electronic frontiersmen were doffing their buckskin and worrying about such niceties as whether email can even be a verb; whether a plural form, emails, is permissable; whether on line should be one word or two; and whether Internet and Word Wide Web are capitalized (and if so, does that mean web page must become Web page? ).


Most emailers donÕt check with the style manual before clicking the send button, but the proliferation of email usage guides provides an indirect indication that writers of electronic messages do want to be correct. There are two even stronger indicators that email has gone from wild and woolly to domesticated and conventional. Every college writing text now includes a section on electronic writing, focusing not just on how to do it, but how to do it right. And for a number of years now all the off-the-shelf email software programs have been offering spell-checkers. Some of these mail programs even boast grammar-checkers as well, a sure sign that the emailers, long criticized for their inventive spelling and loose adherence to standard usage, are either preoccupied with correctness, or they want to give the impression that they are.

Even those writers who donÕt fanatically revise and polish their emails and spell-check before sending avoid the free-wheeling, rough and ready, stripped-down email style in which correspondents get right down to business and then move on. So salutations and sign offs, once thought unnecessary in emails since the email header names both the sender and the addressee, are now more common, even in informal email, because their absence suggests an abruptness that many writers and readers find impolite. And like the phone call, emailers, when they write person to person, often include some chit-chat along with the business at hand to preserve the personal touch necessary to maintain the social connection between writer and reader.

While the first electronic mail may have resembled the telegram more than anything else, its users recognized the uniqueness of the genre and eventually positioned it somewhere between the phone call and the letter. Electronic mail has some of the immediacy of a phone call, yet it is written, like a conventional letter, and delivered to a virtual mailbox, from which the addressee can retrieve and open it, discard it, or ignore it, so it makes sense to consider it a form of mail as well. 

Electronic mail lacks two key features of the phone call and the letter: you canÕt hear – and therefore recognize – your correspondentÕs voice, as you can on the telephone. And you canÕt sign an email to verify that you wrote it in the same way that you can put your John Hancock to the bottom of a letter. Most people donÕt worry about the absence of these authenticators, perhaps because they find emailing so much easier, and less stressful, than either letter writing or dialing up. People still use the phone – as the popularity of mobile phones attests. But people sitting at their computer, with a phone nearby, often email instead of calling. As for writing letters, according to U.S. Postmaster General John E. Potter, while total mail volume has increased dramatically since 1999, there has been a decline in first class mail (Longley 2005). Looking at the mail I receive in a typical week, it would be safe to attribute the increased volume of mail almost entirely to catalogues and credit card offers, and the decrease in first class mail to the popularity of email.

Unfortunately, like the letter that has to survive in an ocean of junk mail, the personal email is quickly being displaced in my inbox by spam. This unsolicited mass email, which makes up seventy-five to eighty-five percent of all messages, takes on the trappings of more traditional mass mail: woo the consumer, sell the product, make the reader think you care. And they have the same impact. Much of my snail mail goes unread in the hasty transit from mailbox to recycling bin. Junk email has become a fact of life as well, and I regularly purge my electronic mailbox of catalogue ads, as well as the unwanted spam that seems so unique to email: the get rich quick schemes from Nigeria (a scam that interestingly enough began with snail mail but ported nicely over to the electronic side), offers of cheap drugs and mortgages, political rants, attempts to get me to reveal bank account information, and the inevitable obscenities that have managed to elude my junk filters.

Spam may be inconvenient or annoying, and it may bilk the overly trusting reader out of some serious cash. But some email poses a bigger problem: it can actually inflict serious physical damage. Communication technology, while generally less dangerous than other sorts of technological development (gunpowder, DDT, the automobile), always brings with it a certain amount of risk. The telephone can be a vehicle for crank and harassing phone calls, though caller ID and privacy manager programs have gone a long way toward eliminating these downsides of having a phone. Portable and mobile phones expose callers to small amounts of microwave radiation, raising concerns about telephone-induced cancer. While there is as yet no scientific link between brain tumors and mobile phone usage, simply using a headset should minimize any radiation exposure.

Text Box: Cary Grant uses the phone to trigger his wifeÕs murder in Alfred HitchcockÕs classic, ÒDial M for MurderÓEven so, phones can bring about death and destruction. Alfred HitchcockÕs 1954 movie ÒDial M for Murder,Ó based on the play by Frederick Knott, may be the most famous fictional example of a telephone call triggering a death, but more recently weÕve seen that real-life terrorists who prefer not to martyr themselves can use cell phones to set off the bombs they leave by the roadside, at the mall, or on a crowded bus.

As Ted KaczynzskiÕs exploits demonstrated, the U.S. mail can be a potent vehicle for mayhem as well. Fortunately letter bombs are few and far between, and even at the height of the more recent anthrax scare, when ordinary people donned latex gloves to open the bills and copy cats sent missives with flour and talc to stir things up, only a few letters actually contained the deadly white spores.

As for email, unfortunately itÕs now all too common for messages from friends as well as strangers to deliver electronic viruses which can jam up a computer, render it useless, steal passwords, or use their new home as a springboard to attack other machines. The computer virus has become a genre of software unto itself, and whole industries have sprung up to counter the virus threat. Computer users must install weekly upgrades to antivirus software to protect their data from these poison pill emails.

But the deluge of spam and the threat of computer viruses havenÕt dampened enthusiasm for email. Even though making contact with an addressee can be almost instantaneous, many emailers find the medium less demanding, less confrontational, than either calls or letters. ItÕs more polite, they maintain, to ignore an email than to hang up on a caller or let the machine get it. Much easier to defer action until youÕre ready to reply. Or to blame deliberate inaction on the technology. IÕve deleted important emails by accident, or lost them in disk crashes, which put me in the awkward position of having to ask the sender to resend, assuming I remember who that sender was. But I know people who think nothing of saying, ÒI never got your email,Ó or ÒI think I deleted it,Ó or ÒSomehow it wound up in my junk folder and I never noticed it,Ó when in fact all they did was ignore the email in question.

Telling little white lies about lost messages may be no worse than the old ploy of telling a creditor that the check is in the mail. But there are some email gaffes that can make us wish for the good old days when typing or writing on clay tablets really slowed the process down. Email can be sent with just a click – you donÕt even have to lick a stamp – and once itÕs sent, thereÕs no way to undo it, no going back to the way things were just a moment before. Clicking before I should have, IÕve done all of the following, with predictable results: sent off a nasty email before my temper had a chance to cool; inadvertently copied an email to a large group of people who shouldnÕt be seeing it at all; or forwarded an email without editing out the one sentence that the new addressee wasnÕt meant to see.

Email has come full-circle in one sense. The epistolary novel, begun in the 18th century by the likes of Samuel Richardson with Pamela, consisted of exchanges of letters among the characters. At least two recent novels consisting entirely of email exchanges bring the epistolary novel into the computer age.