Since the 1970s, electronic mail (email) has changed from being a rudimentary method of text-based communication between a very few computer users in military research establishments, universities, and commercial telecommunications labs, to become a highly sophisticated and widespread media form. The growth of email has helped underpin not only the rise of the Internet as a primary communicative technology of the early twenty-first century, but has also been an important contributor to the ongoing expansion of the “network society” more generally (Castells 1996). Today, email has become a basic means of communication in the everyday life of hundreds of millions of people in the developed and developing economies of the world, linking and expanding their social, cultural, political, and economic realms in ways that continue to be unforeseen and innovative; bringing new issues, problems, and opportunities to the processes of institutions and to individual lives, which are increasingly shaped by digital technologies.
Email continues to be a media that primarily uses text-based forms, but it now increasingly incorporates digital video, photography, and sound files. Moreover, in the body of the text an email addressee can click on a hyperlink that will automatically direct the user to a website, or email attachments can be opened to reveal files in, for example, portable document format (PDF), which can contain large documents such as newspapers, reports, magazines, and books – indeed, any media form of almost any size that is able to be digitized.
It has been estimated that 60 billion emails are generated each day, and this figure grows exponentially. They are used to convey almost every conceivable message between humans (and between human and computer), and this phenomenon has been claimed to help reflect the constitutive forms of human experience (economic, cultural, and social) within the networked society (Castells 1996).
Genesis And Evolution Of Email
As a form of communication via computers, email began in the USA in the 1960s as a method through which multiple users of large time-sharing mainframe systems could share information to enable them to work jointly on projects in a more efficient manner. The original email users were also its developers, working as scientists and engineers in the US Department of Defense, in the computer research institutes in the major universities, and in the research laboratories of the large telecommunications corporations. The practical utility of email allowed it to develop rapidly into networked email, where users from different computer systems were able to communicate. In 1969 the US military computer network ARPANET, which was a precursor to the Internet, further helped to drive email use and contribute to its continuing technological and practical sophistication. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson, an engineer working within the ARPANET network, began the use of the @ symbol as a means of separating the name of the user and their host machine.
The effectiveness of email as a way of interconnecting users created demand for its use on non-ARPANET systems, such as in business and in universities. This, in turn, called for more innovative computing hardware and software solutions that would allow email communication between different network systems. Enhanced email allowed the creation of new forms of networking between users clustered around shared interests. For example, the usenet system was developed in 1980, which allowed the categorization of emails into topics of interest. These categories formed newsgroups that enabled users to email each other on the topics that interested them. It was in these early newsgroups that acronyms such as FAQ (“frequently asked questions”) and terms such as “spam” (unsolicited email) were coined. These newsgroups, in fact, acted as “public discussion groups” – a spilling out into the public domain that further enhanced the popularity of email and fed directly into a greater use of what was, by the early 1990s, a growing Internet system.
It was around this time that the Internet and email began to shape each other’s developmental trajectory in an increasingly close nexus. Increased use of Internet-based email systems led to demand for more email accounts, which in turn spurred the growth of Internet service providers (ISPs). The perceived negative “control” by ISPs over the free flow of email traffic led in 1996 to the introduction of an email service called Hotmail. Developed by Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith, Hotmail was a free email service that could be accessed at any time or place through the open Internet. The service was bought by Microsoft in 1997 and now has over 230 million users and processes 100 million emails a day (Microsoft 2006). The success of Hotmail motivated many competitors, such as Yahoo! Mail and Google’s Gmail. In these and other systems, emails can be received and generated thorough mobile phones or PDAs. Internet and networked-based systems such as short message service (SMS), instant messaging (IM), and ICQ (“I seek you”) allow users to communicate on an almost real-time basis.
Social And Economic Context
The Optimistic View
From its earliest days as a growing media form, email has been argued to be either a positive or negative social phenomena, but there exists no real preponderance of opinion either way. On the positive side, the popularity of email as part of the general networking process has been hailed by observers such as Howard Rheingold (2001) as contributing to the creation of a “virtual community” where the obstacles of time and space are substantially overcome by communication through computers. Email has also been argued to be a creative medium where self-expression took new and unexpected forms, such as through the use of “emoticons,” where “emotions” may be expressed in text by arranging printable characters into “icons,” such as 🙂 to symbolize happiness. Some theorists, such as Pierre Lévy, argue that email, as part of larger computerized systems, is generating “qualitative change in the learning process”, whereby in “the new virtual campus, professors and students will share . . . material and informational resources. Teachers will learn along with their students and continuously update their knowledge along with their teaching skills” (2001, 151). And across the world, network support groups made possible through the use of email are transforming the way many people approach issues such as illness, bereavement, trauma, or facing challenges such as giving birth, raising children with special needs, and so on. The Internet hosts thousands of such networks, and creates what are argued to be constructive “communities of interest” for millions of people.
From the point of view of business, many have grown through creative use of email as a link to their customers through advertising. The trading website eBay, for example, would be a much less attractive alternative to interested parties if they were not able to get together through email to discuss the particularities of the goods or services being bought or sold. Again, from the perspective of some businesses, email serves as a powerful strategic means for “old” media such as television, newspapers, and radio to become “relevant” in the information age. To keep their businesses within the increasingly important digital technology connection, these media forms increasingly use email to link “old” media with the “new” by obtaining the involvement of the user or customer. Viewers, readers, and listeners of traditional media are encouraged to use email to “stay in touch” by, for example, voting on the popularity of a television program, writing letters or opinion pieces for newspapers to print, or commenting on the content of radio across the whole spectrum of its activities.
The Pessimistic View
From the opposite perspective, the proliferation and increasing sophistication of email use has brought with it what many observers see to be a significant downside in a number of social, economic, and cultural realms. Prominent in this regard is the growing volume of spam, which takes up memory on individual computers, slows down overall network traffic, and “degrades” the Internet experience (Pew Internet Research 2003). It has been estimated that 75 percent of the total volume of daily email traffic is taken up by spam (Ferris Research 2007). Concern has also been raised over the prevalence of phishing through email, a practice where individuals posing as representatives of legitimate businesses, such as banks, make fraudulent attempts to gain sensitive information such as credit card details.
Email use has been blamed by some for contributing to a decline in writing standards, with poor grammar (and ultimately poor communication) being the result of the brevity and speed of writing that email supposedly produces (Dillon 2004). Others see it as degrading the “art of conversation,” where, again, the speed and ubiquity of email, mobile phones, instant messaging, and so on have had the effect of being face-to-face “conversation avoidance devices” (Miller 2004). Alternatively, however, it can be argued that email and other modes of electronic communication have ensured that there has never been a time when people have conversed more. This is an ongoing argument that relates quality to quantity.
This very argument feeds into another concern regarding the proliferation of email – information overload, where too much information creates the basis for miscommunication or noncommunication because there is simply too much data to be digested. A major issue of concern for both network architects and the wider user public is the use of email to disseminate computer viruses, which are created to do damage to personal computer files as well as the large databases of commercial entities (Thompson 2004). Another growing problem, especially for those involved with the protection of civil liberties, is that of privacy. With the appropriate technology, governments are able to intercept private communication, corporations are able to read their employees’ emails, ISPs can in theory capture the email traffic of those customers who use its servers, and anonymous “hacktivists” can intercept email as it journeys through possibly several routers on the way to its destination (Lyon 2001).
Most commentators see the growth of email continuing as a central feature of networked communications. However, some also identify a bifurcation in email that divides along generational and task-oriented lines. For example, surveys in advanced network economies such as South Korea and the USA show that younger people use email less and SMS, IM, and ICQ more (Lee 2005). They view email as an “older” and more “formal” mode that a previous generation grew used to. The younger demographic increasingly view it as a way to communicate with “adults” such as teachers or institutions like schools, and to convey longer and more detailed information to large groups (Pew Internet Research 2005).
Social communication with friends and peers, alternatively, is conducted through more mobile technologies. Nonetheless, much evidence suggests that diverse modes of electronic communication (including email) will become increasingly sophisticated, leading to yet more complex and complementary (or divergent) forms within the overarching dynamics of the information society. But this brings with it the caveat that forecasting in this particular instance is only ever able to be provisional, and that new forms of communication and new uses of email will present ongoing analytical and interpretive challenges.
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