Frontier Days

22/12/2014 //

I was going through my Yahoo! Mail account the other day. I rarely use it now, except to log in to Flickr, but it was the first e-mail account I used on a regular basis. This was also before I knew better, so it’s on a bucketload of newsletters that appear to have long since been abandoned to spambots who refuse to cancel subscriptions.

(Incidentally, it’s a bit strange to think that somewhere out there, bots keeps e-mailing me viagra offers and chat requests using pictures of women scrubbed from porn sites in the faint hope that I’ll reply and allow it to infest my computer.)

Anyway, it turned out I’d saved quite a bit of correspondence from those heady days of limited e-mail storage capacity. I assume that at the time I thought this stuff might be less … epheremal and more worthy of archival purposes than it turned out to be. Then again, I’m also something of a hoarder and the sort of person who keeps letters (and everything else), for ages, so that’s probably the simpler answer.

A lot of what I had kept was humourous. Anna, the first e-mail contact I had outside of campus, is a friend who lives in NYC – we met when I was ~~drinking~~ traveling in Australia, and if not for e-mail, I doubt we’d have managed to keep in touch like we have.

Anna would forward jokes, lists and the usual random Internet stuff (it’s thanks to her that I could make sense of Aggie jokes whenever Texas governor Rick Perry is in the news, for example). Back then, people compiled these things for fun. You’d often transcribe it yourself and ship it off into the unknown. Obviously, you’d receive more than you’d produce, but there was at least some effort involved beyond just clicking the ‘share’ button on Buzzfeed.

It didn’t last long, of course. Once everyone had an e-mail account at work, there was suddenly infinitely more jokes bouncing back and forth, and after a while, it’d be the same stuff over and over again. Then came the spam.

Nowadays, your fix is generated on ad-based “content farms” – the post is given a ZOMG!-style title and gets shared directly to Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter (but not Google Plus, because they’re above that sort of thing), where you open a link to read the post, only to find it split in 15 parts, each on a separate page to maximize ad servings. (For your convenience, of course.)

Anyway, going through those old letters and even older jokes, I briefly wondered if the content back then was better even if the delivery system was rougher. I doubt it was, but I suspect that when you had to produce it or go looking for it yourself, it seemed more worthwhile than when you just have it fall into your lap. The Internet may have demanded more work in the beginning, but it was generally more exciting too.

Incidentally, the pendulum sometimes swings back. E-mail newsletters are coming into fashion again, and not just for advertising purposes either. (Thanks to better spam filters, you can actually sign up for one without risking inviting every spambot along.) It’s not quite the same, of course, and at times, it feels like a gimmick, but it is a useful reminder that we, the users, can take useful technology back.

In conclusion, a bunch of archived e-mails I’d forgotten about reminded me that I’ve gotten older and shit has changed in the meantime. Big deal. Now get the hell off my lawn.