David Weinberger
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The Joy of e-mail

14 February 2000

The joy of e-mail

My father-in-law, whom I love, asked me if I'm getting much e-mail thesedays. I told him that I spend from 8am until noon doing nothing but e-mail. Ididn't tell him the full truth which is that I can easily go until 4pmbefore getting off the download-answer-read-send (yes, frequently in thatorder) StairMaster.

"What good does it do you?" he asked, genuinely puzzled.

I thought. I sputtered. I finally managed: "It's sort of mystical."

I'm in a fortunate position. The e-mail I get by and large isn't the scruffthat people inside of corporations get: meeting droppings ("Hmm, Scout,these messages are still warm ... the meeting must have been just a coupleof hours ago"), reflex keister-coverings and "I thought of it first" landgrabs. Because of this column and my newsletter, I generally get interestinge-mail from people writing because they're interested in a topic, ratherthan from people popping Tums ("The only digestive aid that spells 'Smut'backwards") as they hit the send button.

The proportion of interesting e-mail I receive may be abnormally high, buttell me if you sense what I do. I read my e-mail every morning and feel theworld is coming unstuck in the very best of ways. We've lived under a rigidsystem for managing social contacts. The rules say that people you don'tknow are strangers, that you don't speak unless spoken to, that you'd betterhave a clear objective before bothering someone you don't know.

But e-mail is such a non-interruptive medium that the rules are dissolving. Ihear from people around the world. I write to people I would never haveconsidered writing to before. We talk about whatever catches our fancy.

For example, a column in the Boston Globe mentioned a book that soundedinteresting. After spending ten minutes checking around on the Web, andanother five tracking down the author's e-mail address, I sent her a messageabout what I think may be a shared interested. An hour later, her reply wasin my mailbox. A couple of messages later, we are allies whose paths maywell cross again.

Tonight I heard from a stranger who thought I'd be interested in "patternlanguage." Obviously, he cares about it a lot. All I knew about it was thatan old friend I trust thinks it's important. So, the stranger educated mebriefly and gave me a perspective I would never have stumbled on, and whichmy friend has never articulated. Two messages and it's over. Although, whoknows, maybe I'll hear from him again.

An Italian designer now living in the Berkshires came across my site andthought I'd be enthusiastic about his own. He wanted my comments but reallyjust wanted someone to share his pride. I sent him a message telling himbriefly what I thought worked and what didn't. Maybe I should have justsaid, "Cool site!" and let it pass. I made a mistake. I haven't heard backfrom him. I have no idea whether he's sulking, found my comments helpful, ornow thinks I'm a moron. Maybe all three.

So, my father-in-law asks why I do this. What do I get out of it? Clearly, Iget stimulation. And maybe someday one of these e-mail strangers willremember me and recommend my work to a reclusive billionaire who will makeme the sole beneficiary of his will (well, so long as I can manage to offhis cat). But those aren't the real reasons. The world is growing a newnervous system. The neurons are striving to connect. I sense a spiritualmandate so deep that it feels biological. We must find one another, rapidly.We must grip every hand that we see. This the way in which we are evolving.We are building a world that only we can build. We are building the realWeb, the one that uses technology for connection the way our souls use ourbodies for awareness. It is joyous.

David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations.