In Praise of Email

Remember a decade or two ago when it was our national pastime to complain about email? More recently, as I’ve reassessed this blog, my social media presence, and our centralized digital platforms in general, I’ve come to realize just how much the email system got right, in spite of full inboxes, spam, and security issues. Despite, or perhaps because of, its early inception, email avoided many of the worst aspects of our modern media environment.

Let’s review:

  • Email is radically interoperable and universal.
  • You can have your own email address, using your own domain name, independent of any centralized service, and portable between providers. If you wish, you can also choose an email address at a centralized provider.
  • Regardless of provider, you can easily download all of your email onto your local computer or device. You can locally search your email archive; you are not beholden to any provider’s indexing system.
  • Identity on email is [username] at [domain name] rather than just a username that presumes that you are on a specific site or service. Leaving off the domain or service name prevents interoperability because of potential namespace confusion.
  • There are commonly implemented and generally respected standards and protocols for uploading, downloading, and syncing email between machines that are not under the control of a single entity.
  • Most email systems do not signal to others that you are online, and such signaling is not part of the email protocols themselves.
  • Filtering (e.g., spam filtering) is a separate system, and you can choose different filtering systems. Those filtering systems can do many things, including blocking, muting, suppressing images, sorting, and responding — all at the discretion of the user.
  • Although some email systems algorithmically sort email by priority or importance, that is not part of the email system itself. Again, this can be added, or not, by the user, and the default is strictly chronological.
  • The creation of groups (e.g., email listservs) is decentralized and yet effective.
  • You can attach files of any kind to an email, not just an image or video.
  • There are a wide range of clients to compose and read email, with features to match every style of interaction with the email system.
  • You can end-to-end encrypt email.
  • It is possible to have an email environment without distracting ads.

Compare that list with other, newer platforms we use today. I think it looks pretty darn good. Now think about structuring some of those platforms in the same way, and how much better they would be.

Email, Google, Podcasts, Second Life

Digital Campus #34 – Extra, Extra!

For the Thanksgiving Day Digital Campus podcast, Mills, Tom, and I covered a cornucopia of news, including  more on the Google Book Search settlement, some academic challenges to Google’s main search engine, some trouble in the virtual worlds (in a new segment, “We Told You So”), and the end of email service for students at Boston College. We also point the audience to a new site on place-based computing, a couple of easy (or bizarre) ways to write a book, and Processing, a programming language that’s useful in higher ed. An easily digested podcast for those still snacking on turkey leftovers. [Subscribe to this podcast.]

Email, Search, Spam, Text Mining

When Machines Are the Audience

I recently received an email from someone at the Woodrow Wilson Center that began in the following way: “Dear Sir/Madam: I was wondering if you might share the following fellowship opportunity with the members of your list…The Africa Program is pleased to announce that it is now accepting applications…” The email was, of course, tagged as spam by my email software, since it looked suspiciously like what the U.S. Secret Service calls a 419 fraud scheme, or a scam where someone (generally from Africa) asks you to send them your bank account information so they can smuggle cash out of their country (the transfer then occurs in the opposite direction, in case you were wondering). Checking the email against a statistical list of high-likelihood spam triggers identified the repeated use of words such as “application,” “generous,” “Africa,” and “award,” as well as the phrases “submitted electronically” and the opening “Dear Sir/Madam.” The email piqued my curiosity because over the past year I’ve started altering some of my email writing to avoid precisely this problem of a “false positive” spam label, e.g., never sending just an attachment with no text (a class spam trigger) and avoiding the use of phrases such as “Hey, you’ve got to look at this.” In other words, I’ve semi-consciously started writing for a new audience: machines. One of the central theories of humanities disciplines such as literature and history is that our subjects write for an audience (or audiences). What happens when machines are part of this audience?

As the Woodrow Wilson Center email shows, the fact that digital text is machine readable suddenly makes the use of specific words problematic, because keyword searches can much more easily uncover these words (and perhaps act on them) than in a world of paper. It would be easy to find, for instance, all of the emails about Monica Lewinsky in the 40 million Clinton White House emails saved by the National Archives because “Lewinsky” is such an unusual word. Flipping that logic around, if I were currently involved in a White House scandal, I would studiously avoid the use of any identifying keywords (e.g., “Abramoff”) in my email correspondence.

In other cases, this keyword visibility is desirable. For instance, if I were a writer today thinking about my Word files, I would consider including or excluding certain words from each file for future research (either by myself or by others). Indeed, the “smart folder” technology in Apple’s Spotlight search or the upcoming Windows Vista search can automatically group documents based on the presence of a keyword or set of keywords. When people ask me how they can create a virtual network of websites on a historical topic, I often respond by saying that they could include at the bottom of each web page in the network a unique invented string of characters (e.g., “medievalhistorynetwork”). After Google indexes all of the web pages with this string, you could easily create a specialized search engine that scans only these particular sites.

“Machine audience consciousness” has probably already infected many other realms of our writing. Have some other examples? Let me know and I’ll post them here.

Academia, Email, Internet, Technology, Web

Data on How Professors Use Technology

Rob Townsend, the Assistant Director of Research and Publications at the American Historical Association and the author of many insightful (and often indispensible) reports about the state of higher education, writes with some telling new data from the latest National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (conducted by the U.S. Department of Education roughly every five years since 1987). Rob focused on several questions about the use of technology in colleges and universities. The results are somewhat surprising and thought-provoking.

Here are two relatively new questions, exactly as they are written on the survey form (including the boldface in the first question; more on that later), which you can download from the Department of Education website. “[FILL INSTNAME]” is obviously replaced in the actual questionnaire by the faculty member’s institution.

Q39. During the 2003 Fall Term at [FILL INSTNAME], did you have one or more web sites for any of your teaching, advising, or other instructional duties? (Web sites used for instructional duties might include the syllabus, readings, assignments, and practice exams for classes; might enable communication with students via listservs or online forums; and might provide real-time computer-based instruction.)

Q41: During the 2003 Fall Term at [FILL INSTNAME], how many hours per week did you spend
communicating by e-mail (electronic mail) with your students?

Using the Department of Education’s web service to create bar graphs from their large data set, Rob generated these two charts:

Rob points out that historians are on the low end of e-mail usage in the academy, though it seems not too far off from other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. A more statistically significant number to get (and probably impossible using this data set) would be the time spent on e-mail per student, since the number of students varies widely among the disciplines. [Update: Within hours of this post Rob had crunched the numbers and came up with an average of 2 minutes per student for history instructors (average of 83 students divided by 2.8 hours spent writing e-mail per week).]

For me, the surprising chart is the first one, on the adoption of the web in teaching, advising, or other instructional duties. Only about a 5-10% rise in the use of the web from 1998 to 2003 for most disciplines, and a decline for English and Literature? This, during a period of enormous, exponential growth in the web, a period that also saw many institutions of higher education mandate that faculty put their syllabi on the Internet (often paying for expensive course management software to do so)?

I have two theories about this chart, with the possibility that both theories are having an effect on the numbers. First, I wonder if that boldfaced “you” in Q39 made a number of professors answer “no” if technically they had someone else (e.g., a teaching assistant or department staffer) put their syllabus or other course materials online. I did some further research after hearing from Rob and noticed that buried in the 1998 survey questionnaire was a slightly different wording, with no boldface: “During the 1998 Fall Term, did you have websites for any of the classes you taught?” Maybe those wordsmiths in English and Literature were parsing the language of the 2003 question a little too closely (or maybe they were just reading it correctly, unlike faculty members from the other disciplines).

My second theory is a little more troubling for cyber-enthusiasts who believe that the Internet will take over the academy in the next decade, fully changing the face of research and instruction. Take a look at this chart from the Pew Internet and American Life Project:

Note how after an initial surge in Internet adoption in the late 1990s the rate of growth has slowed considerably. A minority, small but significant, will probably never adopt the Internet as an important, daily medium of interaction and information. If we believe the Department of Education numbers, within this minority is apparently a sizable segment of professors. According to additional data extracted by Rob Townsend, it looks like this segment is about 16% of history professors and about 21% of English and Literature professors. (These are faculty members who in the fall of 2003 did not use e-mail or the web at all in their instruction.) Remarkably, among all disciplines about a quarter (24.2%) of the faculty fall into this no-tech group. Seems to me it’s going to be a long, long time before that number is reduced to zero.