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Jesse Singal

The death of email as we know it? Not so fast

(Istockphoto)
By Jesse Singal
December 26, 2010

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DURING MY last semester at college, as an awkward, inexperienced 22-year-old, I came across “Lisa,” a girl who ended up being very important to me. But first there was plenty of typical college drama: countless twists and turns, many overwrought conversations, and an extremely inconvenient boyfriend.

Through all of it, I attempted to win Lisa over with emails. Rambling, quirky notes that I poured myself into. I still have them. At one point, I explained that I had ended my abstinence from red meat — spawned by fears of mad cow disease — with a trip to Wendy’s, “figuring that, if this was the 1500th hamburger of my hamburger-eating career, then it was pretty unlikely that the first 1499 would have been innocuous but that this would be the patty that killed me.” (How could she have resisted this?)

I was reminded of Lisa when I heard Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg proclaim last month that email is on its way out. “Email is dead,’’ he insisted as he introduced a new feature that will combine all sorts of communication — email, instant messaging, text messages — into one stream. Dismissing email as too slow and too formal, he argued that “friction and cognitive load’’ make it impractical as compared to other forms of communication. Last week, an article in The New York Times seconded Zuckerberg’s claims about email’s inevitable demise.

Bad news, I say. It’s time to stand athwart the dumbing down of communication, yelling “stop.’’

Now, I’ve watched every piece of new technology that catches on among teenagers — from Facebook to text messaging — get demonized by an adult population that mostly doesn’t understand what it’s seeing. Normally, it’s just ill-informed Luddism.

This time? I’m with the Luddites. Because if we’re now moving so fast that email isn’t a reasonable form of communication, then maybe it is time to slow down a bit.

Zuckerberg isn’t the first person to criticize email. Traditionalists carp about how different it is from “real writing,’’ and gush about the feel of a sturdy pen on high-quality paper or the smell when you open up a letter someone sent you long ago. These are valid points, but sentimental ones, because in practice email offers up all the same possibilities as letter-writing: just as “writing to a friend’’ can mean sitting down to pen a heartfelt 20-page apology or scrawling an expletive on a sticky note and sticking it on someone’s fridge, email is a wide-open experience. In its unlimited space, you can send both quick notes or the long, searching, agonized-over messages like the ones I sent to Lisa. (And you can cringe over them years later, just as you would a letter.)

Not so for the latest wave of communication tools. Texting and instant messaging are fundamentally different from emailing and letter-writing — they push the user relentlessly into quicker, more concise and stripped-down modes of communication. However long it took you to respond to that last message was too long. Whatever you wrote, it took you too long to type it. And at any moment you’ll get another one. And another! And another, until an endless cascade of dopamine spikes defines your day and your conversations.

There’s no reason to take an ultra-Luddite position here. Twitter and texting won’t fundamentally change the nature of human relationships. Long-form writing will continue to exist. A pixellated sky isn’t collapsing onto our avatars. But still, what does it say about us that we appear ready to slough off the last form of written communication that encourages — or at the very least fully allows — its users to think deeply about what they want to say, why and how they want to say it, and whether it needs to be said at all?

“Sorry for subjecting you to this,” read the end of my hamburger email. “No one should ever, EVER give me 770 words to work with.’’ In reality, I was thrilled I had 770 words to work with. Thrilled that she’d read them.

But I’m not sure the awkward 22-year-olds of the future will have that luxury.

Jesse Singal edits The Angle, the Globe opinion section’s blog at boston.com/theangle. He can be reached at jsingal@globe.com or @jessesingal on Twitter.