The Nature and Use of Email

In terms of the history of communication, email is a relatively new medium; to some extent, we are still discovering how best to use it in our day-to-day lives. Email has several features that distinguish it from other forms of communication, and which often create problems for new users.

Firstly, email is designed to be asynchronous, and as such is like "snailmail" (ordinary paper-based post) or voicemail; there's not meant to be an immediate reply or conversation involved, and the mail sits in the inbox until collected by the recipient. However, it's also often fast enough to be used synchronously, so that two correspondents can, if online at the same time, hold something like a conversation using email.

Secondly, and perhaps because of this first point, it is emerging in language terms as a hybrid of speech and writing. Emails tend to be more casual than letters or memos, but more formal than a phone or face-to-face conversation. This often causes problems for new users who have difficulty in finding the correct “register” for their emails, and often use too formal or too casual language in inappropriate situations.

The relatively relaxed nature of email communication combined with the ease with which messages can be distributed and archived also leads to problems. In a landmark libel action against a subsidiary of the Norwich Union Insurance Company by one of its competitors, court orders were obtained to ensure that emails relevant to the case were preserved, and these emails were subsequently used as evidence in the trial. What may have just been casual office gossip around the photocopier just a few years ago becomes admissible evidence because it is written rather than spoken.

A similar situation occurred in the mid-eighties with the internal (non-Internet) email system installed in the US White House offices. Again, the backup tapes of email correspondence were seized, and were used in the inquiry against Oliver North and others surrounding the Iran-Contra scandal. This highlighted the fact that, with digital data, merely deleting the file or message is not enough; it's all too often recovereable from somewhere.

There's much more material on the characteristics and effects of email in Stefik (1997, esp. pp.111-123).