The Life of Email

Last night I had my first ever instant message (IM) conversation with my mother. I know, it’s a historic event worth noting on this blog. After this, who knows what else is possible? Tomorrow, I may start text messaging my father on his way to work or Facebooking my uncle in Minnesota!

To students, however, this is nothing new. IM-ing is an essential part of college communication. Want to grab lunch now? What’s our homework tonight? Did you hear that Timmy is going out with Becky? IM conversations stem from the fact that students’ computers are on 24/7. And what’s more convenient than exchanging a few lines while pretending to “do homework”?

But any student out of middle school will tell you, IMing is passe. Text messaging is far better because you can now leave your computer behind and text on your way to class, heck you might as well text when you’re in class.

Texting, IMing, and Email, oh my! But who cares? Does it make a difference what you’re doing? Well, yes it does. As this fine slate.com article points out, “there’s now a generation gap between first-generation and second-generation Internet users.” What? Huh? OMG! WTF? Isn’t anyone reading this blog post pretty much the same? How can there be a generation gap among internet users when the internet as we know it didn’t even get popular until less than 10 years ago? And now there are generations of internet users?

But I would hesitate to simply draw this “generational” gap by age because the line is far more complex. There are certainly a good amount of 40 year olds who are far more cutting edge than I am. And there are plenty of 18-25 year olds that can’t do much more than exchange a few emails (one of the most basic skills) and play music on their iPods. Even if you divide by who uses what technologies, you still are not making clear distinctions.

One of the murkiest examples of this is right here at Middlebury College where email is the lifeblood of the campus. Email is dead among the “second generation” but students are forced to use it because higher education is still tied, via the first-generation user administration, to an “office” world. One of the largest tensions tech-wise at Middlebury is that faculty and staff are comfortable using their antiquated Outlook calendars to schedule meetings and send campus-wide emails whereas students are bypassing those services opting instead for non-Middlebury-administered GMail accounts and Google Calendars which allow for quicker processing and organization. Students can spread campus news faster via text message than the campus newspaper can or even an all-school email.
Sitting down with the Director of Library and Information Services Barbara Doyle-Wilch last Friday, some of these issues came up. When students have outgrown the technology provided to them by the institution, they will find their own technological solutions. Email should not be the solution to anything anymore yet, it still persists as it ties down students as slaves to “organizing” instead of doing.

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2 thoughts on “The Life of Email”

  1. Ryan,

    I’m sympathetic to your frustrations with technological lags, but your point about generations not being firm dividers undercuts your point about email – many students are less techno-savvy, and text messaging is not universally embraced (in part because of the horrible wireless infrastructure in the US, and the high costs of texting pricing out many).

    Email still a crucial technology for delivering messages that need to persist and be archived, the same way that snail mail still serves a purpose for some functions – the ability to search emails makes it much more functional than Facebook messages, IM, texting, etc. I agree that our Exchange Server system is clunky, but the problem is not with email as a mode of communication, just the software used to implement it. And part of becoming part of any institution – whether a college or an employer – is adapting to its communication system, and working to improve it!

    Now work on getting your fellow students to be comfortable using blogs…
    -JM

  2. Fair enough, Jason. I got a similar complaint from my a close friend of mine today esp. about texting which is considerably cheaper in China where I am headed in a few weeks time.

    So maybe I am complaining about the implementation of email at this school rather than the technology itself. But it is not the software — it’s the institution and community’s habits that have developed. You have to admit that the flux of all-campus emails is really getting to a point where no one cares to read the ten to fifteen all-campus emails we get daily. Perhaps an opt-in system (similar to opting for newsletters) would be more effective at controlling the inbox. The “price” to send an email is so low and “cost” of parsing through it all and organizing yourself accordingly is high. Students waste time trying to deal with things like scheduling meetings via email. Texting and IMing doesn’t do anything in this situation so the complaint is toward how to make this community’s use of email better because, of course, email is crucial technology.

    As for blogs, students I know like reading blogs that pertain to Middlebury but wouldn’t dare comment or start their own. Why? Because Middkids don’t have time to maintain blogs. They are too busy trying to make sure they are on top of their actionable email and being on Facebook instead.

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