You've Got Mail

Recently I caught a bit of the 1998 film You've Got Mail. It stars Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, and is a based around their characters’ email communications. The back and forth of emails punctuate the narrative. If you've not seen it, a review in Empire magazine from the time observed, tellingly, that ‘the film leans heavily on images of the stars typing (never the stuff of great cinema)’.

Watching it back now, the film’s depiction of the technology suggests that it was an in-between time for email. You've Got Mail captured a moment when email wasn't entirely new, whilst at the same time it wasn't fully embedded. It was on a trajectory toward familiarity, but hadn't quite arrived. In 1998 email was new enough that they could base a whole film around its still novel properties, whilst not being so new that it would be implausible for these characters to have access to it. It was unfamiliar enough to be an unusual prop in a film whilst not being so unfamiliar that the audience wouldn't grasp the technology (or the part it played in the narrative).

As an artifact of two decades, You've Got Mail gives us an imperfect point of comparison. It tells us a little of how email was viewed at the time - an admittedly limited perspective on that past perhaps, but it is at least a fleeting glimpse into that cultural moment. Back then, it seems, the enthusiasm was palpable. There was a seeming excitement about the possibilities that email held.

The comparison the film provides with today is suggestive of how, like some well-worn furniture, email has become a familiar and constant part of everyday and organisational life. It is also illustrative of both where email isn’t likely to be used today and where it has become a pillar of daily communications. Of course, if you were to remake the film now the characters probably wouldn't be using email - they'd be more likely to be WhatsApping or messaging on some social media platform. Despite this shift, email has wedged itself into lots of other communication networks.

Organisations run on email. It is so deeply embedded in these structures that it shapes and defines how information passes across and through them. As Lev Manovoch has argued, the logic and form of this particular interface seems to have shaped our communications and interaction with information. And yet email is almost too bland and ordinary to merit much attention.

You've Got Mail looks old now, the usual markers date it: the settings, costumes, computers, cars and so on have inevitably aged. These signs of the passing of time are added to by the burgeoning change in communications that it inadvertently depicts. From novelty and wonder to inescapable and humdrum reality.

I think I sent my first ever email in the Autumn of 1995. I suspect that You've Got Mail was being workshopped by a production company at around the same time. I was at university and had gained institutional access to email and the internet. We actually had a module showing us how to use them. An indicator of e-mail’s newness at that time. The module assessment, if I recall correctly, was to send the tutor an email and to submit a word-processed CV. It was a technology to be learnt about rather than a reflex of daily life.

Since then email has become deeply embedded and has taken on a structural role. There were 281 billion emails sent in 2018 and the numbers are predicted to continue to incresse over the coming years. For many it has become an overwhelming treadmill of interaction - moving at the pace of a never-quite-cleared inbox. Email tends to be much more impersonal and burdensome than it was imagined that it might be back in the cultural moment depicted in You've Got Mail. The now defunct automated phrase “you’ve got mail”, which lent the film its title, is unlikely to evoke positive feelings of wonder, as it seemed to back then. It is not always the case, but it is more likely to represent another brick in an overwhelming wall of information.

What's strange is that email now seems both old-fashioned and immovable. This is a strange combination for a surviving technology. Usually if a technology feels out of date it is likely to be readily usurped by the next new thing. Yet email persists, it is hardy. Email seems behind the times but, in organisations in particular, looks irreplaceable. It has deep and tangled roots.

Maybe it is its simplicity that saves it. It's hard to replace something so basic and easy to use. Yet it is difficult to imagine that email will hang on for the next two decades. Email will surely look even more archaic by the 2040s as, perhaps, will the social media we are now using. Maybe we will also become trapped into archaic and dated social media forms. As with email, an individual can choose to move their social media profiles but a whole network of people is much harder to shift between communication media. Networks are burdensome when it comes to technology migration. Email is not going anywhere.


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