July 1997

Root Page of Article: Interviewing and Information in a Digital Age, by I-chin Chang

The Nature of the Email Message

The difference between oral and written communication has long been subject in communication studies, and email, introducing a new mode of communication, has blurred the line between the oral (speech) and the written (ink on paper). In "Computers, Network, and Work," Sproull and Kiesler found that people are more candid and outspoken in email communication. Bill Gates indicates in his book "The Road Ahead" that no one has to worry about existing cultural or social restraint in email. In another book "I Sing the Body Electronic" by Fred Moody, email is described to combine "both distance and intimacy, since the parties to an email exchange may be thousands of miles way yet still share their most personal thoughts in an instant." His metaphor for email is the "confessional booth." Clifford Stoll claims in his book Silicon Snake Oil that "most people tend to 'say' things in email communication that they would never sign their name to if the communication were in written, paper form."

Likewise, forms of expression that are not well articulated by formal writing are often expressed in email. Message addressers tend to reveal their true feelings, which are withheld when conversed orally. Email often become a source of emotion, such as "flames." Since a "flame" is typed, senders have more time to organize their thoughts, which makes a flame more understandable than a string of curses uttered in anger; at the same time, "flame" reveals a characteristic of email--genuine feelings being expressed. This being the case, email provides fodder for reporters searching for quotes which expose the sources' true feelings.

In a face-to-face dialogue, individuals confront one another and generally reveal their identities, or at least their appearances. On the telephone, conversants can hear one another's voices, which often reveals gender, nationality, or age, and can easily detect emotions, such as rage, fear, or delight. However, online participants in discussion have substantially more control over their self-presentations.

Although email users would agree that people tend to reveal more of their thoughts online, computer-mediated communication still lacks the visual and other nonverbal cues of face-to face communication, in which gestures and facial expressions are revealing as well. To express their feelings and strengthen their stands, email users have developed symbols called 'smileys' or 'emoticons.'

Made up of keyboard symbols, 'smileys' provide a form of shorthand for the depiction of physical condition. But emoticons only reinforce a computer-mediated communication rather than reproduce all the visual effects occurring in a face-to-face conversation. --

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