Sunday, September 23, 2007
Personal Anthropology: Electronic Mail
Back in the heady days of the early 90's I could be found amongst the undergraduate sprawl of the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Like most financially strapped undergrads, costly long-distance phone calls were rarely an option. I wrote letters to my family and friends using nothing but a pen and college ruled notebooks courtesy of Mead. A week or so later I'd receive their reply. How quaint! Virtual communication options were, however, quietly establishing their presence in dull, red-bricked campus buildings where--as my then Northwestern-tethered friend Joe repeatedly, excitedly insisted--I could sign up for an "electronic mail" account.
An entry from a diary I kept then. April 12, 1991--Friday:
Ate lunch and headed over to Baker Systems and finally got an Electronic Mail account--something Joe has been telling me to get for almost a year--so it'll be in effect by this Thursday--cool! I can't wait. I'll be able to send mail directly to Joe and Will at Northwestern-- I can even talk directly to them...
That following Thursday, May 2, I stumbled through my first e-mail. A few weeks later I had managed to join various newsgroups and mailing lists, most devoted to the various niches of the then burgeoning electronic music scene ricocheting about Europe--the sounds and news of which, much to my discontent, were wading far too slowly across the Atlantic.
In their article, Netizens: On the History and Impact of USENET and the Internet, Michael Hauben and Ronday Hauben nicely summarize the giddy potential such aggregation of niche content suddenly, almost magically, made possible:
Inherent in most mass media is central control of content. Many people are influenced by the decisions of a few. Television programming, for example, is controlled by a small group of people compared to the size of the audience. The audience has very little choice over what is emphasized by most mass media. Usenet, however, is controlled by its audience. Usenet should be seen as a promising successor to other people's presses, such as broadsides at the time of the American Revolution and the penny presses in England at the turn of the nineteenth century. Most of the material written to Usenet is contributed by the same people who actively read Usenet. Thus, the audience of Usenet decides the content and subject matter to be thought about, presented, and debated. The ideas that exist on Usenet come from the mass of people who participate in it. In this way, Usenet is an uncensored forum for debate where many sides of an issue come into view. Instead of being force-fed by an uncontrollable source of information, the participants set the tone and emphasis on Usenet. People control what happens on Usenet. In this rare situation, issues and concerns that are of interest, and thus important to the participants, are brought up. In the tradition of amateur radio and Citizen's Band radio, Usenet is the product of the users' ideas and will. Amateur radio and CB, however, are more restricted than Usenet. The range of Usenet connectivity is international and quickly expanding into every nook and cranny around the world. This explosive expansion allows growing communication among people around the world.
Suddenly the trickle of content I had been piecing together from various mass media resources became an all-you-can-eat buffet covering various facets of the scene. Album reviews, heated discussions concerning the definition of "ambient music," and a multitude of other "issues and concerns" of interest were available for perusing and expanding.
So, more then a positive experience, it was a small epiphany--the discovery of a formally non-existent community of fellow electronic music travelers huddled and hunched over their far-flung computer keyboards all excitedly (and eloquently) sharing their passions.