Is email the new TV?

There was a time — roughly from the 1950s through the 1990s — when TV was pretty much the thing for American families who wanted to share time together by consuming media. Yes, you could play games together, but it was hard to find games that parents and children would enjoy equally well. And movies were a “once a week” thing — something you went out to the cinema to see on a Friday night — not something you did every day.

But every night, without fail, most families would get together, gather around their TV after dinner, and watch whatever was that night’s prime time hit show. And then mom and dad (and maybe the older kids too) would stay up to see the Tonight Show. This pre-packaged way of spending time with your family was such a given, that after a while people stopped thinking about it.

Until, that is, it started to go away. The rise of the Web, and more compelling computer games, and even TV on demand, has, over the course of the last decade, gradually dismantled the entire concept of a family getting together at one place and time to have a shared media-consuming experience. Now when we see images of mom and dad and the kids all sitting around the living room watching TV, it feels like a window into another time, a time that is gradually receding into history.

And now I think the same thing is starting to happen with email. Once email was unassailable — the great connector, mighty cybernetic unifier, bringer together of worlds, killer of postage stamps. But now that we have Facebook, Twitter, micro-blogging, MMORPGs and various forms of on-line chat, it seems that the once mighty email — the electronic version of the long-form letter — has started to go the way of its tree-killing forebear. In just a few short years, the very idea that one would take the time to compose a fully formed personal communication with a beginning, a middle and an end has started to look like a relic of another age.

And I feel sad about it.

5 Responses to “Is email the new TV?”

  1. Mari says:

    I still write emails (for Japanese friends, even young people) with the traditional letter beginning, commenting on the weather! I’m a relic! :)

  2. admin says:

    That’s good to hear! I wonder whether it’s a difference between the two cultures.

  3. x says:

    I sustained an artful email conversation for a few weeks several summers ago. My summer job involved many hours of waiting for whirling machines to do their job, which I spent crafting allusions and illusions into electronic letters. I think there’s something very special about carefully crafted letters written for one person.

    Question: Are you nostalgic for the personal or fully formed aspect of the “traditional” email? I ask because you seem to devote much time and energy sustaining a blog, which is impersonal by nature. The medium of the blog (like yours) is implicitly omitted in your list of online communication. Maybe the big distinction for you is that your blog entries are fully formed and carefully crafted while Twitter and Facebook statuses are not. Do you think you’re using blogging to replace the sort of communication that you wish to have, the sort you used to have via email?

  4. Mari says:

    Yes but I feel a bit embarrassed if I catch myself writing an English email starting with “Here in NYC it has become quite cold, fall is coming as you see the leaves changing in color; how are you?”. Wouldn’t you find it a bit odd as an English speaker? The opposite for me would be if I catch myself hugging a friend in Japan in public. We just don’t do it since we could be miss-understood as “romantically involved”. My old piano teacher nearly fainted as she saw me kissing a bearded American friend at a party. So yes I think you are right, it’s cultural :)

  5. admin says:

    X: I completely agree that there is something unique — and very romantic — in the carefully crafted letters between two people. Spending that level of time and effort is a way of showing that we really care about another person.

    Yes, I am nostalgic for the fully formed traditional email. It has a kind of old fashioned “longhand” quality in common with blog posts, but of course they are quite different. Yes, I do find some of the same satisfaction in writing blog posts, but I don’t think it replaces personal letters at all. There is far more intimacy and vulnerability in an exchange of letters. Something that is broadcast — like a blog post — simply cannot capture that wonderful aspect of letter writing.

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