The Earthling

E-Mail and Your Social Status 

Have you noticed how e-mail has inverted the age-old correlation between epistolary neatness and social status? Why, when I was a boy, tidy correspondence was the hallmark of an alpha male. Only someone important enough to have a secretary could send out flawlessly typed letters. The more typos a letter contained, the more likely it was to have come from a ne’r-do-well.

But now that e-mail has taken secretaries out of the loop, it is the missives with the most missing vowels and uncapitalized proper nouns that come from the highest echelons. These people are too busy to bother with niceties. Once, I got an e-mail from an internationally known author that was nearly complete gibberish. I was in awe.

I fear that such gibberish holds the secret for success in the digital age: Do high-volume networking—crank out lots of e-mail—really fast. I say I “fear” this because I’m bad at prolific networking. My algorithm for attending a cocktail party goes like this: 1) stand in one place for two hours, talking to a total of three people; 2) go home and agonize over whether I inadvertently offended them. The digital age is not an age for agonizers. It’s quantity of contact that matters, not quality.

I’m trying to change. (I mean chng.) I’m trying to get the hang of going online, reading a few incoming e-mails, and answering them right on the spot with a rakish disregard for spelling, grammar, and whether I’m saying stupid things. So far my success is partial: I’ve said some stupid things, but I’ve spelled them correctly.

The budding hypernetworked world is a natural outgrowth of the past. Why, when my father was a boy in small-town America, people had few professional relationships, but the ones they had were deep: There was a fairly stable circle of colleagues and contacts, and you knew them intimately. As the 20th century progressed, and airplanes and phone lines proliferated, the ratio of quantity to quality in professional relationships grew: You “knew” more people than before, but you knew less and less about them.

This trend was central to David Riesman’s famous book The Lonely Crowd, published exactly 50 years ago. According to Riesman, the “inner-directed” American—grounded in a small and stable group of kin and friends, guided by a strong moral gyroscope—was giving way to an “other-directed” American. The other-directed American had more social contacts, of a more superficial sort, and had values that were more malleable.

The Internet, you might say, is making us more and more other-directed—or, at least, making us directed toward more and more others. You can now stay “in touch” with thousands of people, so long as you don’t waste much time learning about their favorite movies, inquiring about their family’s well-being, or spelling words correctly. More and more of our communications are functional in a laserlike way: You interact with people along a slender strand of common vocational or avocational interest.

Riesman’s work is often cited in lamentations about the decline of “character” as a prerequisite for success and the rise of “personality.” But if “personality” was the key to success in the second half of the 20th century, what are we going to call the key to success in a world of e-mail networking? (Personalitylessness?) I would invite readers to e-mail me suggestions, but then I’d have to spend hours agonizing over how to reply.

A related bit of media criticism: Last week a front-page New York Times article used Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd to anchor its coverage of a Stanford University study showing that people are spending more time online and less time in face-to-face contact with friends and family. (“A Newer, Lonelier Crowd Emerges in Internet Study.”) But the article didn’t even mention the “inner-directed” and “other-directed” stuff, which is generally taken to be the core of Riesman’s argument. Instead, it described Riesman as chronicling “the shift away from family and community-centered life and the ascendance of mass media.” This makes Riesman sound like Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor whose noted essay (soon to be a book) “Bowling Alone” complained that people spend too much time watching television and not enough time communing.

Of course, we’re all free to render Riesman however we want to render him, but it seems to me that rendering him as Putnam fails to maximally illuminate the debate that was triggered by the Stanford study and recounted in the Times piece.

In the piece, Internet enthusiasts pilloried the study’s lead author, Norman Nie, for failing to emphasize that time spent online is often time spent in communities. Howard Rheingold, author of the book TheVirtual Community, was quoted in the Times piece saying, “This is not a zero-sum game … social networks have been extending because of artificial media since the printing press and the telephone.”

I agree. In fact, you could argue that the essence of the entire history of information technology, going back to cuneiform, is an expansion in the breadth and depth of non-zero-sum games. Still, Riesman’s argument—so long as it isn’t rendered as Putnam’s argument—has a reply. Even if you’re getting lots of social contact, and even if that social contact is “win-win” in some sense–it helps you meet vocational goals, or raises your social status–you still may be losing in some other sense. It’s possible to be lonely in a crowd.