A reply to Webmail abuse

Imagine living without e-mail for one day and opening your inbox on the next to find it flooded with meetings you missed, assignments you forgot and opportunities you lost. Joseph Conrad’s immortal words come to mind: “The horror! The horror!” How else would you read the Daily Messages or find that your professor had sent out last-minute vital information before an exam? How would you let your supervisor know you couldn’t work this week? And let’s not even get started on what would happen to clubs and organizations. In the midst of all the insanity, we forget that e-mail is just one of many means of communication and not necessarily a perfect one.

Webmail forms the invisible backbone of Williams. Need to get in touch with someone you know by name? Look up his or her unix on WSO Facebook, and you’re almost guaranteed a reply in a few hours – it’s much easier than searching for someone who’s “a friend of a friend” and can pass along a message by word of mouth. Professors can send e-mails out to the whole class at once, students can arrange for one-on-one talks with professors outside of class, clubs can set-up and coordinate meetings and employees can ask for days off. All you need is an e-mail address.

But there’s a catch: E-mail is easy. Too easy. Some of the various missteps that could and have occurred: (1) Sending someone the wrong e-mail (To: Dad, Re: let’s ditch class). (2) E-mails written while drunk (To: Professor, Re: asvas i love you). (3) Confusion on the reader’s part from poor wording. (“Oh, you meant Donna was wearing booty shorts, not Donny”). (4) Careless spelling sent to people you want to impress (To: Interviewer, Re: Thakns for considering me). (5) Mass e-mails that weren’t meant to be . . . mass e-mails. (“My lab partner is such a lazy ass”).

We underestimate the permanence of e-mail. Black type on a white background tends to remain in the memory at least as well as a conversation, if not more so. Then why do we approach e-mail so much more casually than a face-to-face meeting? If we were complaining to an administrator in person, we would take time to listen to their arguments and respond. But it seems easier, somehow, to just rant in an e-mail and hit that send button. Then when he or she writes back with a cold reply, we shrug it off and blame bureaucracy. Hardly a way to get your voice heard, as seemingly evidenced by Internet petitions.

We assume others will read our e-mail immediately, yet we ourselves often fail to follow up on urgent messages. I can’t count the number of times when the lone message that was buried beneath an inbox of mass e-mails had a bit of crucial, but otherwise completely missed, information. If you need to change plans and send a last minute e-mail, chances are good that your recipient will miss it. It doesn’t take a lot to figure out that your advisor will be ticked off if she waits half an hour for you to show up at lunch.

We become confused when people take time to respond. Think for a second: if you e-mailed a close friend, you could reasonably expect them to reply within a few days. What about a club advisor or a Williams alumnus? Or a professor outside of Williams? You don’t know how long to wait for a reply. After a week, you become uncomfortable. They could have a busy schedule. Your e-mail could have gone straight to spam (unlikely, but possible – depending on the e-mail address you sent it from). Or they could have ignored it entirely, by accident or on purpose. Then the relationship between the length of delay and ambiguity is an exponential one: the longer the wait, the more severe the doubts that arise.

We forget that e-mail doesn’t have to be a default medium of communication. Just as Webmail’s ease of access makes it easier for us to get in touch with others, so it creates more difficulties in maintaining personal connections. E-mail is not a substitute for phone calls, video chats or personal visits, and it’s not always the most effective. It remains a powerful – perhaps our most powerful – tool for instant communication in a fast-paced college atmosphere. But it also remains our greatest barrier in our quest to keep in touch with people, not machines.

Elizabeth Hwang ’13 is from Westchester, N.Y. She lives in Williams Hall.