ReelThoughts: July 18, 2010

"You've Got Mail"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


It was early September 1985 - the day after Labor Day, to be precise - when I looked down at the little piece of paper and tried to intuit what it meant: "Username: jamesber@seas.upenn.edu; Password (temporary): classof1989." Several days later, while sitting in the engineering computer lab, I figured it out. This was my first encounter with something called "electronic mail." I couldn't see how it improved life. The only thing it seemed good for was allowing my professors to issue mass reminders about tests and sometimes send out assignments. These things could as easily be accomplished via a Xerox machine and the regular student mailboxes.

Communication in the immediate pre-Internet world consisted of letter writing and phone calling, both of which I was notoriously bad at. This is one reason why, when friends moved away, I invariably lost touch. Pure laziness on my part, I guess. I was never one for staying on the phone for long periods of time and the only time I wrote letters was when my mother pressured me to send a thank-you note to an adult who gave me a present. One might think someone who had been writing copiously since grade four might be a more aggressive letter writer, but that wasn't the case. For me, communication meant walking down the street and knocking on the door. I was a face-to-face person.

In 1982, one of my friends went to college (I was a sophomore in high school at the time). As was typical of dorms in that bygone era, there were no individual room phones; only a community wall model at the end of the hall. So, speaking to him for any length of time was impractical. I encountered something similar when I went to college in 1985 - to call my parents and grandparents, I used a pay phone situated near my doom building (In a phone booth! With closing doors!) It wasn't until my sophomore year that I had a phone in my room, and I had to share that with three other guys and their various girlfriends who spent the nights. But I digress…

Because calling my friend was difficult and I was a confirmed anti-letter-writer, I began recording 60 minute cassette tapes. He reciprocated although, while I rambled long enough to fill up both sides, he usually ran out of material about 30 minutes in. This prolonged a friendship that might otherwise have ended in the early '80s. Ultimately, it died a natural death, but I'm still in touch with him on a more cordial and sporadic basis. (For the record, most of our recent contact has been by e-mail.)

Today, if you move as a kid, you keep in contact with your old friends via texting, e-mails, and a variety of social networks. My wife continues to have flourishing relationships with her childhood compatriots even though they live literally halfway around the world. In 1977, when my family moved 100 miles from Morristown, NJ to Cherry Hill, NJ, I lost track of everyone. The Internet has made the world smaller, eased the trauma associated with relocation, and eliminated the concept of a "pen pal," at least in the traditional sense.

When I was a child, my grandfather, who was a career engineer at Bell Labs, told me about a project in development called a "picture phone." This would allow the caller to see the person at the other end of the line, and vice versa (assuming, of course, that both parties possessed the right equipment). The problem with the picture phone in the 1970s was bandwidth. Copper phone lines simply couldn't accommodate voice and image data. Today, the concept of the "picture phone" has become a reality, although not using traditional land-lines. Computers and smart phones, however, now allow parties to connect visually and aurally. The most common application for this seems to involve sex. Not exactly how I thought about using it when I first heard about it at age six.

I occasionally used e-mail as an undergraduate, but I became more accustomed to it while in graduate school and even more comfortable with it as a tool once I moved from academia into the corporate world. Still, even in 1990, it was not a mainstream means of communication. While an increasing number of workers were gaining access to it at their place of employment, it was a rarity for someone to have a home e-mail address. (I obtained my first one in 1991, via a provider called Genie.) Back in those days, I spent perhaps 15 minutes per day at work checking e-mails and responding to them. If I got 10 in a 24 hour period, that was a lot, and I lavished an inordinate amount of attention on each one. Today, probably 50% of my (day) job relates to e-mail responses.

By 2010, has e-mail become passé? Has the great communication innovation of the late 20th century become as stodgy as the conventional telephone? I read an article recently indicating that today's children no longer use e-mail. They don't bother to get an account unless it's mandatory for signing up to a social network, and the only time they check their inbox is when they need to reset a password. Kids today live on-line. They do not compose messages; they fire them off and expect an instant response. E-mail is too slow and clunky. It has its uses, just like the telephone, but it's old school technology, no longer sexy.

I tweet because it's a good way to let people know when I post something new to the website. In fact, a tweet will advertise the publication of this article. But I don't have a Facebook account and I generally don't participate in social networking. Why? Because it eats up time I would rather spend doing other things (like changing diapers). Social networking is a fad, although it's unclear how long it will last - probably until the next generation finds something with which to replace it. That's the way of things. For me, it's important to keep abreast of what's current in communication even when I don't participate, although there's always the danger of being like my great-great-grandfather, who knew what a phone was but didn't own one.

E-mail, which once was an obsession, has now become almost an annoyance. In the '90s, I loved the thrill of getting e-mails from readers from across the globe, commenting on reviews, arguing with me, correcting errors. Then, on March 3, 2001, I received an e-mail that began like this: "Hi. I believe it’s not unusual for you to receive emails from complete strangers so that spares me from a lengthy introduction/explanation. Just a couple of questions…" As was my custom, I responded immediately. Six months later, I met her face-to-face for the first time. By the end of 2002, we were engaged, which led to an August 2004 marriage, and the birth of a son this past May. So it's no exaggeration to say that I owe a lot to e-mail.

The problem with e-mail today is that the signal-to-noise ratio has become unacceptable. Every day, my account receives about 100 messages. 90 of them are informing me that I have won some sort of lottery, asking if my penis is too small, or begging me to help some poor dying man find a worthy recipient for his inheritance. I also hear from banks where I don't have an account informing me that my information may have been compromised as a result of a security breach. You know the drill… everyone gets these. Thanks to a spam filter, most of them don't reach me. Unfortunately, spam filters being what they are, quite a few legitimate e-mails don't reach me either. Of those that come through, I reply only to the ones that sincerely request a response.

One minor source of disappointment is that I don't get the volume of hate mail that I once did. A few years ago, I could rely upon receiving at least a few really juicy nasty-grams every week. I used to keep these for posterity. The date of the last one in that folder is November 7, 2009. It reads: "I've watched your reviews for alittle while now. And I can tell 1.Your old. 2. You have very bad taste 3. And you dont know what is truly good entertainment. 4. So I think I will steer clear of all your reviews. 5. And tell the rest of the people I know to disregard you cause in all honesty? 6. You probably voted for the Titanic to win an Oscar you jackass. 7. Feel free to say something else about other movies so I have more proof you got your job by winning a lottery from a pool of people consisting of drooling morons." Perusing that causes a pang of nostalgia. I have to go back to 2008 to find another worthy missive: "You're not a good movie reviewer, you should not be on rotten tomatoes. You have a pathetic website and you have no talent besides bashing movies. You have no right to review movies, you can only rip on movies because you probably failed somewhere in your life and you were never good enough to come up with your own movie idea or do something original. You probably have no sense of humor which is why you give comedies a bad review all the time. I despise you because I always see your ugly geeky mug on RT and I've had enough. Sadly those dumb bastards at RT will probably keep you on because your site maybe gets a decent amount of views. ANYBODY CAN DO WHAT YOU DO, ANYBODY. I hope some day you decide that you will do something else with your time and never review a movie again. I cannot stress that enough."

Of course, the lack of hate mail does not mean that my reviews have become less controversial or are undergoing less criticism, only that the primary forum for such negativity has moved from e-mail to more public arenas (such as the "comments" area of Rotten Tomatoes and various similar locales). Then again, when one considers the vitriol spewed on-line when politics is the subject, the slings and arrows aimed at movie critics are benign. If I wanted to provoke some nasty rumblings, all I would need to do is write something about the merits/lack thereof of Barak Obama's policies. The far right and far left, I have discovered, are equally vile when it comes to the attack dog mentality. For example, even though they agree on nothing, Keith Olbermann and Rush Limbaugh have pretty much the same mentality. Neither is interesting to listen to because both are predictable and offer nothing of interest beyond the expected. If you know what someone is going to say, why bother listening?

Of some interest to me is what the next leap forward in communication will be. Most of what's in vogue today - be it Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc. - is a variation on a theme. Fundamentally, it's not that different from e-mail - only that the messages tend to be shorter and they are broadcast to a select audience rather than delivered to one individual. With a version of the picture phone a reality given today's technology, where do we go from here? Holographic projections? Camera/large screens that allow an almost "real" interaction with someone else? (Consider: one wall of your living room is actually a projection screen that displays the hotel room where your spouse is staying while away from home. You can then interact with him/her almost as if he/she was in the room with you. The only thing that's missing is touch.)

For now, however, we have e-mail and its sibling, texting. (On many smart phones, the two are indistinguishable.) Like the telephone, it has become part of the mainstream matrix of communication tools and will continue to be an important cog in interpersonal and business interaction. Still, I can't help but be nostalgic for the times when it was exciting to open an inbox and see what was there. Now, like my daily trip to my curbside mailbox, it's little more than a chore. That's the way it is with everything: what's new and shiny one day will eventually become dirty and rusty. E-mail, as a way of communication, is closer to the latter than the former.


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