Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


He was E-mail Before E-mail was Cool

Filed under: Looked Into   Tagged: , , ,

Benjamin Chambers writes:

Remember when e-mail was new? If you’re like me, probably not as well as you think you do, if John Seabrook’s January 10, 1994 story on Bill Gates, “E-mail from Bill,” is anything to go by.

For instance, Seabrook talks about how odd it was to meet Gates for the first time, after first exchanging a number of e-mails:

As we shook hands, he said, “Hello, I’m Bill Gates,” and emitted a low, vaguely embarrassed chuckle. Is this the sound one E-mailer makes to another when they finally meet in real space? I was aware of a feeling of being discovered.

Doesn’t this seem to be a fairly odd observation under the circumstances—not to mention precious? I have to wonder how in this context e-mailing people before meeting them in person differs from corresponding with them by letter: what had really changed? Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but Seabrook gets even goofier:

Maybe this is the way lots of people will communicate in the future: meet on the information highway, exchange messages, get to know the lining of each other’s mind, then meet face to face. In each other’s physical presence, they will be able to eliminate a lot of the polite formalities that clutter people’s encounters now, and say what they really mean. If this happens, it will be a good thing about the information highway: electronic communication won’t reduce face-to-face communication; instead, it will focus it.

Still, it’s kind of fun to read such an unabashedly wide-eyed view of the medium from a time when e-mail really was new. It’s like opening a time capsule.

Seabrook followed up his Gates profile with an “In the Mail” piece on pp. 8-9 of the February 7, 1994 issue of TNY. (It doesn’t appear on the TNY website or in the index of The Complete New Yorker.) In it, he summarizes reader response to his article and includes some additional thoughts on what it was like to go from having virtually no e-mail correspondence to an amount of e-mail that must have seemed overwhelming for the time:

“[T]he morning that article appeared on the newsstands, I checked my mailbox and found it stuffed: twenty-nine messages. In the following three weeks, I received three hundred and ninety-six electronic messages from readers, almost all of them strangers. Over that period, I also received eight phone calls about the article, seven letters, and one fax … In my greenness about the information highway, I put my E-mail address in the article, and now I suppose I will be hearing from readers for years.”

I gather Seabrook wasn’t put off by his readers’ responses though, because he helpfully supplied his e-mail address again. I’ll reprint it here, just as a reminder of times (and companies) gone by: 73124,1524@compuserve.com. (Remember when you could put a comma in your e-mail address? Oh, for the days of the open range!)

Seabrook also writes about his changing feelings about receiving so much e-mail: at first he was thrilled, then overwhelmed, and finally more interested in the process than the content: “Now I find myself looking forward more to composing E-mail than to receiving it … Composing E-mail composes me.” Wonder if he still feels that way?

He quotes from a number of readers, who are variously humorous, frivolous, and bemused by the possibilities of the new medium. My favorite:

Real problem with the Information Superhighway is typified by this letter: God only knows how many idiots like me will tie up your time with responses.

Amazing how much things have changed, no?


Fascinating piece! I wonder if anyone used e-mail for the first time and thought: “This’ll never catch on.”

Thanks, Paul. In 1984, my college physics tutor left Chicago for the west coast to work on something he described as an electronic library. (Or maybe that was the metaphor he used to explain what he was talking about.) He was talking about the day when lots of hard-copy materials would be available electronically; he said that anyone with a computer, not just published authors, would be able to publish his or her material, for free or for a fee, however small. I just shook my head and thought, “Boy, that sounds like a dead end!” Heh.

And I distinctly remember being skeptical, around the time Seabrook’s piece came out, about e-mail. I appreciated its speed, but at the time, you could only use it with the select few people in your acquaintance who also had the necessary equipment and comfort with the technology.

One thing I was sure of: I would never stop writing long-ish letters, even if I used e-mail instead of snail mail. That illusion was gone within a couple of years, though I’m still not sure if e-mail was the cause, or simply that I got older and busier.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree