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The neighborly role of e-mail in our lives

June 24, 2001

Two of the goals of Inbox, when it began two years ago, were to explore how e-mail is changing our lives and to narrow the gap between the snobby early adopters and the lost-in-the-woods novices.

A hundred-plus columns later we've managed to clear-cut portions of this particular forest, but we are still several planks shy of building a single e-mail platform.

The obstacles in creating one e-mail world fall into two categories, the unfortunate and the interesting. The former has to do with literacy and opportunity. Not everyone in the world can read, or have access to e-mail. This is a bad thing. In the latter category, online etiquette and the reflection of society through e-mail behavior should differ between individuals.

We've created neighborhoods. People who communicate with each other through the "" address are in one specific location, while folks with the "" suffix are on another block entirely. The level of communication in these neighborhoods is quite different, ranging from "how do we shape the software future" to "check out these digital shots of me and my basset hound."

But let's be careful with these neighborhood definitions. The qualititative difference between Microsoft employees and AOL users is comparable to that between the beach and the mountains, not the suburbs and the slums. It has more to do with preference than privilege, as someone in a $1.5 million home may be perfectly happy using AOL or Hotmail to communicate.

The neighborhood application may become more literal. We moved recently, and I visited the folks next door. We exchanged all of the necessary statistics, including e-mail addresses, and I soon received a pleasant online note: "It was nice meeting you, and we look forward to meeting your wife." Since that time we've traded neighborly notes back and forth: "Sorry about the cars in the driveway." "Can you feed our cats when we are away?"

Like anything else, there are appropriate and inappropriate topics for e-mail communication between neighbors. You wouldn't want to get a note about burglars in the bushes or a fire in the garage. But neighbors are always sending each other recipes, phone numbers and instructions, and e-mail is a great way to make sure that stuff doesn't get lost.

None of this communication is especially earth-shattering. But each time e-mail is used for something inconsequential - like asking someone to feed the cat - we edge just a little closer toward e-biquity.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him, by e-mail at Type "Inbox" in the subject field.

By Charles Bermant, Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company


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