Once I thought that email might embody a reincarnation of epistolary prose. With the ubiquity of the telephone, discursive letter-writing had become a thing of the past, reduced to bite-sized, prefabricated, Hallmark-branded shorthand. But when I crafted my first emails, I heard the voices of Civil War soldiers, speaking from the pages of their preserved letters home; the voices of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller as they conversed remotely through lengthy elegant missives; the foment of revolution and redemption in George Jackson's prison correspondence with Angela Davis. The letters of everyman and literati alike, penned with years of reading and rereading in mind. I thought that the written word had found a new voice, that we would again craft our prose with the higher standard of written permanency that the immediacy and convenience of fleeting phone calls had tossed by the wayside.
Perhaps these dreamy sentiments can be reduced to the naïvete of a young would-be writer, but I think they are more reflective of a lack of prescience of the ways instant communication would further undermine the craft of writing. While recent legislation and scandal have pushed businesses to regard email as an official (and actionable) form of communication, I fear the email's die may have already been cast…and it didn't come up seven.
I receive a minimum of 50 emails a day. Of these, maybe five are written with anything approaching the sort of care one would invest in the most casual business letter. It's not that I necessarily mind the occasional dashed-off note, but I find that many email correspondents don't bother to spell check, nor write in complete (much less compelling) sentences. The sense I get is that many email "writers" invest about as much energy into writing an email as they do in hitting the send button. I receive threads I shouldn't because of that too-handy forward button; I get copies of press releases that still have track-changes on; I get successions of corrected versions of hastily sent emailed press releases (great, because what I actually need is more email).
At the recent Weblog Business Strategies (which you could read almost verbatim online, in near real time), the notion was vehemently put forth that blogging will do away with journalism once and for all. (And good riddance!). Okay, you might guess I appreciated that suggestion about as much as a blow to the gut. But once I uncrumpled and was able to take in a few full breaths again, I began to think about how we reached this point. Blogging has already inexorably changed journalism, no doubt about that. Much like the Internet as a whole, blogging has further increased the expectation of instantaneous communication. It has also indulged in a dangerous level of self-immersion and -reflection, the likes of which are comparable to the clique that penned the surrealist manifesto. Infinite regression anyone? But I digress. The real-time minutes of the Weblog Business Strategies are almost drowned out by shouts of "Ya, you're right!" and "Me-too!" So much back-slapping and so little perspective.
Ah, perspective. Now what the heck does that word mean in the Gimme—Now! era? Maybe perspective, if you'll pardon the pun, is a thing of the past. Maybe we don't want our "news" placed in context, fleshed out with annoying facts that might not jibe with real-time-rhetoric, or—heaven forbid—be professionally written. Of course, this is all well and good for me to say, because I can. I have a forum and maybe if I didn't I'd be right up on a blogging soap box of my own construction with a posse of virtual toadies raising their fists in support of my own little slice of rant.
But perspective isn't all that journalism tempers the delivery of insta-news with. We play by rules. How passé. As the resignation of key New York Times editors in the wake of the Blair scandal indicates, we don't condone plagiarism. We honor NDAs. We make a clear distinction between on- and off-the-record comments. (Unlike bloggers who were not accountable to agreements made with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates when speaking at the recent D: All Things Digital conference and posted off-the-record comments to the Web, which were then reiterated in the press.) We write with an eye to the longevity of and accountability for our words. Yes, a public forum is a good thing, but to confuse self-expression and public discourse with professional journalism or even news seems like another incredibly short-sighted step towards a more-information, yet less informed future.
So, while Sarbanes-Oxley may have mandated archiving—and by extension some level of accountability in email—what no litigation will achieve is a return to the fundamentals of effective communication. And with blogging coming to a business near you, the stakes just got raised again. Let's hope we don't crap out on this one.