8. On email
|Sebastian Chan||Feb 11, 2019|
[This is the ‘permanent’ post - email subscribers get posts as they come out but not all posts will hang around online once they’ve been emailed. So far - and as of December 2019 - I’ve sent out thirty two emails - about 60,000 words, which are now only visible to patrons. So if you want to read future emails, sign up or subscribe to become a patron!]
A shorter one today.
I’m now 8 episodes into this email caper and I’ve written over 10,000 words that have landed in your inboxes over the last three weeks. That’s more words than I wrote publicly last year. Your inbox is one of roughly 500 that this email now reaches directly, not counting the many that it gets forwarded onto.
Whilst the reach of (publicly facing) social media - Twitter, Facebook, Instagram - is broad, the conversations have been getting increasingly shallow over the last decade. But the replies I’ve received to my emails so far, from all over the world have generated conversations with depth, richness and thought that I’d forgotten were actually possible outside of face-to-face conversations.
Reports of the death of email were, indeed, premature. In fact email is a bit like a supercharged zombie foe in a first person shooter videogame - the Bloaters of The Last of Us (2013) for instance. Email is nearly 50 years old and still won’t die.
My first email account wouldn’t have been until maybe 1993. I didn’t get one with my student enrollments because the course I took didn’t involve computer labs so it wasn’t until Luke showed me how to get one that I got one. Because I couldn’t get it as a student I had a weird email starting with an ‘x’. It wasn’t until I started my postgrad and working at the university that I got an ‘s’ prefix.
Whilst I’d been on BBSes before in the 1980s each with their own seperate private message boxes, email immediately felt different. Of course almost none of my friends or even academics in my field used it, so there was no one to talk to. So it was email discussion group ‘listservs’ that suddenly opened up to me. Alongside Usenet, listservs teemed with early life.
Shortly after the birth of the public ‘web’ and the arrival of ‘web browsers’, I set up my first website and finally had a ‘proper’ non-ID based email address. Later with the registration of my first domain, came email addresses that I used more consistently. Business cards were made with an email address on them, even.
Sometime around then I used Pegasus as an email client before replacing it with Eudora. I think I might even have my old Eudora archive somewhere in a zip file. Email was simpler then. And, as those sorts of email clients became popular email was becoming a pretty useful tool for communication as more friends got addresses. I noticed last year that Eudora has been preserved and the codebase open sourced by San Jose’s Computer History Museum (joining the source code of Adobe Photoshop v1.0 and other key software of the early 1990s in their collection).
Once the first big public wave of the Internet hit - endless free signup CD ROMs for various ISPs and ‘cyberspace’ and all that - the comparative mainstreaming of email meant that from the late 1990s until the wide adoption of social media platforms in the mid 2000s email shifted from useful to stressful. Too many people, too many messages, and, with the growing commercialisation of ‘cyberspace’ came endless spam.
But now, it feels like we’re revisiting email because the same stresses have overwhelmed social media. Young people were the first to shift their social media usage to less performative, ephemeral - but still hyper commercialised - platforms where messages expire (but are still data mined by the provider).
Recently, writer and photographer Craig Mod wrote one of the definitive pieces on the rebirth of email and newsletters, particularly as a format for writers and artists. There’s little to add to his comprehensive piece really. Go read it, it is really good - and he has also made some excellent recommendations of other newsletters that you might be interested in.
Every technology experience has its glitches and laggards. Sometimes there is a glitch in iOS where the Mail.app starts reporting an extraordinarily large number of unread emails. In a world that fetishises so-called Inbox Zero, I expect that these are terrifying moments for some, amusing reminders of the ‘seams’ of the digital world.
And, there are still organisations that haven’t mastered email. My local public school still sends out complicated PDFs attached to an email announcing their newsletter. The PDF contains all the actual information in it - the email is just the envelope, not the message itself. Another nearby school uses their ‘parent news email’ to send you a link to their ‘Learning Management System’ where the actual news is shown - assuming you can remember your password. Then again, there are still restaurant websites that show their menus using Flash.
I should have found some music to recommend that was related to email, but the closest I got was Hussein Kesvani’s short piece on the teens who have ‘nostalgia for a misremembered 90s’ (apologies to LCD Soundsystem), where vaporware becomes mallwave. Grafton Tanner’s (who writes for Zero Books) quote in that essay is especially important.
“You’ll have people who think things were better in the past because they were more stable and fixed. And people in more dangerous vaporwave communities like the far right — who have their own vaporwave community known as ‘fashwave’ — can say, ‘Yes, in the past, things were better when there wasn’t gender or racial equality.’ That yearning for the past — for a better time — can lead to people forming their politics based on misremembering.”
So let’s not send you down a vaporwave rabbit hole, and instead towards Maarja Nuut & Ruum, an Estonian duo who late last year put out an album for 130701 called Muunduja. The album is produced by Bjork & Tricky collaborator Howie B and is a strange mix of Estonian folk songs and electronics. If videos are more your thing, then here’s their clip for Haned Kadunud (The Lost Geese). They’re touring Australia shortly and I got alerted to them by Bob Baker Fish’s interview with them in Cyclic Defrost.
Until next time, be safe.