I deleted our personal e-mail service. That's right, I shut it down.
I feel like a great burden has been lifted from my shoulders. Don't worry, I'm not communications-starved: I still have to check the answering machine, keep an eye out for the faxes that sneak in, open all the regular mail and tend to the e-mail account I use for my consulting business. But our family account is history. I can now log on to the Internet without so much as a how-de-do. But, even better, I can let my computer sit there in its sleep-like state and not feel guilty about ignoring my e-mailing correspondents. So dream away, little processor--I won't be waking you abruptly any more.
When e-mail became popular a few years ago, you would have thought it was the Second Coming. Here was a wondrous new way of communicating with family and friends: brief, snappy, funny, spontaneous. I could instantly send greetings to anyone without having to look for an envelope or pay for a stamp. And I might get an answer back in seconds. Forget snail mail forever! I was so excited that I even set up the computer so it would automatically pick up my messages at the crack of dawn, and when I came downstairs an hour later to feed the cats, I would read and answer my e-mail in my undershorts (sorry, I can no longer e-mail you a photo).
So what happened? As near as I can determine, e-mail's very success has been its undoing with me; I was overloaded. This human hard drive did not have the storage capacity to deal with the volume of e-mail I was getting. I came back from a simple five-day vacation and found forty-odd messages awaiting me. I just did not have the heart to look at them right away, and it snowballed from there. A week later, there were almost 90. Three weeks later, several hundred. No doubt the problem was compounded by my volunteer activities, which generated notifications of meetings and requests for assistance. E-mail has become the phone tree of the late 1990s. I figured the really important e-mailers would have called by now to find out where I was, but the phone hasn't exactly been ringing off the hook. How important could their messages have been?
Here, you decide:
>> Hi : )
>> just wanted to let you know that the monthly meeting fo [sic] the 2nd has neen [sic] rescheduled for Tuesday the 8th.
>> Hi : )
>> I am sending this information on the placement of markers along Haul Road a second time because at least one of you on this list didn't receive the original message sent last Wednesday. I apologize if you have already received this message.
>> Hi : )
>> The meeting that was resheduled [sic] for the 8th has been switched to the 9th so that more people can attend.
>> Thanks for dropping the brochres [sic] by--
>> Hi : )
>> The meetiong [sic] of the 9th has been moved back to the original date of the 2nd.
>> Call me when you get in--M. has had another stroke.
Okay--so one of them was important. BTW (e-mail lingo for "by the way"), my hypothesis was proven correct: My wife and I did get a phone call about the stroke victim.
I have intentionally spared you the messages that included the entire archival history from Day One: You know, the one with original message with the initial response, with the second attachment to the third reply. Some of these e-mails need an archaeologist to reconstruct the proper time line so they can be read in the right sequence.
But I'm absolutely sure you want to see one of the clever pictographs some of my adult friends have spent so much time constructing out of punctuation marks:
/ \___/ \
I know there is something wrong with me because I have never had the inclination to fashion cats or mountains out of my carats, backslashes and exclamation points. I am obviously running with the wrong crowd.
As a result of this crisis, I conducted a thorough review of the fundamental premise of home e-mail. As a civic duty, I feel compelled to report that I now question its basic tenets:
E-mail is fast.
Only if you're hooked up to your computer 24 hours a day. If you don't make a habit of checking your e-mail regularly, it may be hours or days before it is read. And if the arriving e-mail requires more than a one-word response, it can sit for several days before being answered. By the time your snail mail could have been pushed through my letter slot at home, I might have read your e-mail, but by then I figured you really didn't care anymore.
E-mail is real fast.
Only if you don't care about getting an answer. E-mail may arrive in minutes, but in the amount of time it takes to log on to send a message, you could have dialed the phone and started talking. (Yes, yes, I know--e-mail is better and cheaper than calling overseas, and you don't have to worry about those annoying time differences. But most of us aren't using e-mail to converse with family in Abu Dhabi.) And, as added proof of the telephone's continued superiority, which do you check first when you get home, the answering machine or your e-mail?
E-mail is cheap.
For the monthly access fee that most providers charge, I can buy a whole lot of envelopes and stamps. In fact, I could buy several dozen first-class stamps every month and have money left over for a few long-distance calls.
You can send the same message to everyone at once.
Great for setting up a meeting, but death for "personal" messages. If I had to scroll past 30 names just to get to the text, my delete finger started getting itchy. Rule of thumb: If a bulk message can be sent to more than three people, it is either boring, spam or work-related.
E-mail helps you stay in contact with your friends and family.
How quaint. Unfortunately, I have found through extensive personal research that if you have friends or family members you ignored when you had only the telephone available at your fingertips, these same friends or family members will never make it into your e-mail address book. But here's a scary thought: All of the people you have been trying to avoid for years will find your e-mail address and start sending you electronic Christmas letters and photographs of the kids. Worse yet, they'll want to get together the next time they're in town.
Now, I am no apologist for the postal service, but it does deliver hard copy for a fair price. As an added bonus, the expense of postage keeps out some of the riffraff. So if e-mail is really only snail mail over the phone lines, why do I need it coming in from more than one source? For now, I'll take a "Good morning" from my letter carrier over my computer's "You've got mail."
Mark Farmer runs a consulting firm for small businesses from his Alexandria home.