With everyone focused on handwringing issues surrounding social media, such as ‘disinformation’, and the rising tide of regulatory initiatives, most have forgotten about one of the earliest forms of Internet communication – email, and the real problems this medium is facing. I am not referring to spam email, one of the early crises facing Internet users, which has been generally mitigated by increasingly effective spam filters. I am trying to understand a more basic issue of – let me call it – bad emails. Bad emails are those that no one reads, or no one continues to read beyond the first few lines.
It is not simply due to the declining attention span of Internet users. I’ve written about how much I’ve noticed that when people respond to my emails they most often respond only to the first point, as if no email has more than one point or one question. Maybe many people are too rushed and harried to go beyond the first point they can respond to and be done with it. But I think it is more basic than this.
I am reading a collection of letters by the prolific German-America author Charles Bukowski, entitled On Writing, edited by Abel Debritto (New York: Harper Collins, 2015). I did not agree with many of the lessons conveyed by Bukowski’s letters. For example, he did not make carbon copies, and generally did not keep copies of what he wrote, often sending his original work to editors without even tracking to whom he sent what. I save my handwritten notes, and everything I do online is copied and copied.
However, I very much enjoyed his criticism of much writing, from poetry to the news, as too often stale and formulaic – unoriginal. His letters are distinctively his, and he cares deeply about what he reads. As he puts it: ‘A man’s soul or lack of it will be evident with what he can carve upon a white sheet of paper’ (p. 25).
As I carried on with examples of his writing, and his thoughts on writing, my mind went straight to the tragic condition of most email that most people receive. Most of us have long since stopped writing ‘letters’. But they have not exactly been replaced by email without a great loss in quality and diversity.
Possibly due to the numbers of email we receive, one quickly categorizes each to determine its quick disposition – delete, scan, read, save, or even print to guard, read later, and more. Hundreds of emails can be efficiently disposed of in minutes. But the more serious problem, and why it is so easy to process email, is that most is so stale and formulaic. An appeal for donations. An invitation to a seminar. A notice of a meeting. … The variations are most often trivial, such as a colourful drawing or logo, but the same basic script.
Bukowski’s letters were personal and always told a story, whether about what he was doing, or how he was feeling, or what rejection he received, etc. I will never have his talent, or write or draw such interesting letters, but he inspired me to think more carefully about every letter – email – that I write. Why should anyone read beyond the first point, if that far, unless the message is personal and tells a story? Reading your given name in the salutation is not enough in the days of computer-assisted mail merges.
So the crisis of email is that it has become artificial, prepackaged, and unimaginative. How much more fun to try and make every email a story you would enjoy telling the recipient letter (Internet) ‘user’. The question becomes: Will I do this? Can I?
At the very least, I will make sure I keep his letters in sight as a reminder of my ambition. May I recommend that others spend time reading the letters of someone whom they regard as a great letter writer, if only to remind themselves of the potential of the letter as a story, and address the bad email crisis?