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Just One Question for Alexis Massie
Feb 18, 1998 :: Michael Sippey

MS:  Is ICQ killing the art of email?

Dear Michael,

Thanks for writing. You know, I was just thinking the other day about how much I hate ICQ. You must be reading my mind, you clever thing.

I remember the days before ICQ became the de facto communication tool among netfolk. Gregory would send me these incredibly beautiful letters, sometimes two or three a day, and you know how well he writes. Just gorgeous. And Maggy and I had these incredibly coy conversations, pages and pages of innuendo and subtle flirtation. Strangers would write to tell me how they felt about my writing, and I could tell whether or not I really liked them by the style of their voice. I had an entire conversation once using nothing but selected quotes gleaned from various poems by T.S. Eliot, exchanged over a period of several hours which resulted in the conclusion, at the end, that I was in love after all.

Some people have boxes in which they keep their correspondence and love letters. Mine is a battered Griffin & Sabine stationary box, within which I keep the record of my college loves. Similarly, I have folders in my email software that allows me to retain all the old correspondence I receive, filed under the names of the people who are important to me. Your mail is in there, too, sweetheart, between Maggy's 1998 folder and Patrick McCuller. But just as no one writes a letter when a telephone call will suffice, no one writes email when they can send an instant message, and my folders don't grow half so fast as they used to. That's too bad, I think. I have a lousy memory. Sometimes I like to go back to my old mail and laugh at all the old jokes again, and see how we have all grown over time. You can't do that with ICQ.

I got on ICQ for one simple reason. Peer pressure. Everyone I knew was doing it, and they were harassing me to do it, too. Instantaneous messaging would presumably be the best thing since apple pie, but to be honest, I have instant messaging with email. It is nice to know whether someone's online based on whether or not they appear on ICQ, but that's not a very reliable guide. Most horrifically, I think, is the fact that the actual content of conversations degrades to nothing more than chit chat -- little blurbs of misspelled greetings and questions no one cares about like "How was your day?" On ICQ, everyone talks but no one says a thing. I used to keep my writing style sharp by composing a lot of letters, which is the traditional habit of writers. Now I have less of an excuse to do so and more of a reason not to.

It's not that I don't like it. The Mac version stinks, but I still like it. It's nice to hear the constant stream of "uh-oh's!" coming from the next room, an annoying sound indicating the receipt of a new message that you can't disable on the Mac. I like the fact that people I don't know can say "hi" and that I am, somehow, mysteriously obliged to reply with an immediacy that never existed in an email culture. I like the fact that my friends and I spend all of our time trying to find something to say to each other. I do like it. Otherwise, why would I be logged on 24 hours a day?

So it's not that I think it's evil. I just think it's killing the art of email, the custom of thoughtful letters, individually addressed, and is undermining the carefully constructed support community amongst online writers and thus degrading their work.

I'm glad you wrote. I hope this didn't go on too long. But, you see, in email I can elaborate for as long as I need to. You can always come check back and read it later.

Your friend,




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