Confession time: I forgot about email!

In my research I am trying to understand the political communication patterns of digitally enabled citizens. I sampled from the #CDNpoli Twitter network but my interest goes beyond Twitter. I have gone to great lengths to include a wide range of social media and non-digital channels of communication in my list of tools I always ask about. What I didn’t include was email.

Of course email consistently came up in interviews and once I realized my mistake I added it into the list of things I wanted to hear about. To be fair, I also hadn’t included Vine but I think it is safe to say, given usage rates, that one is a bit more understandable.

Now, forgetting about email could be written off as a silly error of a young researcher, but I like to think I am pretty rigorous when it comes to methods. I looked at multiple nationally representative surveys, I did a deep dive into the literature, I sought out advice from many experienced researchers — yet I still did not realize the channel was missing until I got into the field.

I think the problem is that I bought into the idea of “new” and “old” forms of communication. Of course, we don’t use those words anymore. “New” is taboo, the cool term is “social.” But the result is the same, we categorize types of communication tools/channels in specific ways so a given term broadly includes a certain range of tools. These categories are useful because they allow us to reduce complexity and to compare across types.

But there are a few issues. “Social,” is a pretty limited subset of digital communication technologies, and for most, email is not one of those. Further, email isn’t all that new anymore. From my small sample alone, multiple interviewees got their first email accounts in the 1980’s, over a quarter of a century ago!

Unfortunately email is without a home in the most common dichotomous (two options, this or that) categorization schemes. Email is not an “old” channel of communication either. “Old” is reserved for paint on slabs of rock and fireside stories, right? Ok, ok, maybe the printing press, radio, television and telephone count too.

Clearly I’ve only glossed over these categorizations and there are a lot of factors (like acts the technology affords its users, or integration of technology into domestic life) that I’ve not discussed. Maybe I did just make a silly grad student mistake, but for me there is an important lesson here: categorization is a moving target and when we compare the newest to the “old” we risk forgetting about the middle ground. That middle ground, in the case of email, just so happens to be a potentially important site of communication, an indicator of technology adoption, and/or an intervening variable in other communicative processes.


A note on mistakes.

I was told recently that, particularly as a grad student, having a blog like this is “brave.” I am opening up my process to you all. You get to judge me based on my incomplete projects. Perhaps more pointedly, employers get to judge me on incomplete thoughts and ideas which is a risk. That said, I think the benefit to me, my study participants and potentially (read: hopefully one day) others outweighs the risks.

I think working out my ideas in a non-journal article or thesis chapter format makes my ideas clearer and arguments stronger.

I think writing for a non-academic audience makes my work more accessible to my participants and the broader population I am interested in which has positive implications for both informed consent and ensuring validity.

I think opening up the black box of the academic process can be valuable for academics, particular us newbies, trying to sort out the next steps and for potential employers looking for people who’s workflow fits with the values of their institution.


2 thoughts on “Confession time: I forgot about email!

  1. Ben Lee says:

    I had a very similar experience in my own thesis. I spent so much time considering new and exciting ‘social’ and interactive tools I forgot almost entirely about boring and mundane email despite the fact that everyone of my participants was obsessed with it. I was so focused on the new that I almost missed the obvious answer.

    I agree that part of it is down to the fact that people have been socialised with email in a very different way to other tools. Most people have had accounts for a really long time and it’s easy to forget today that email works through the internet not the web, despite the fact that most of us now access email through a web interface, Gmail for instance. I also think that part of the blame has to go to email itself. It’s structured to so closely resemble writing a traditional letter that it can be hard to see the difference. Emails go to addresses, have subject lines, carbon copy etc. The icon is even an envelope.

    I like the blog, it’s very brave! Take heart and give them hell!

  2. Paul Prepas says:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    It may surprise you to learn that I read your blog sometimes! From the outside, I think it really helps me understand what you’re up to with regards to your research. Research into social media is such a new field, I find it hard to describe what you’re doing to my friends. I would argue that your ideas aren’t half-formed when you write them here. You’re showing that you’re a flexible and curious thinker, and the fact that you’re doing so in public also shows that you aren’t afraid to do so in a transparent manner. The questions you ask yourself here are questions that, while yet unanswered, are fascinating to an average layperson like myself. Asking questions is at the very heart of academic research.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that anyone who claims that they know everything about their field is lying. The only people I trust are the ones asking questions. You’re a very good writer; not simply in an academic sense, but for a general audience as well. I can’t speak to professional risks, obviously, but I would love for you to continue.

    For what it’s worth in an anecdotal sense; Brian, Michael, and Susan Gottheil are not on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or any social network. Their primary means of communication – and sharing information – remains Email.

    All the best,

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