How Windows 8 Changes Everything, Part V: The Reinvention of E-Mail (And How Another Blast from the Past Could Be Your Google Reader Replacement)

If you follow my tweeter, you know that I finally got on board the smartphone bandwagon a few months ago, shortly after completing (or so I thought) this series. I’d lost my cell phone back in February and for all her reticence, Mom wanted me to have a cell phone while she took a vacation in Phoenix over my spring break, so she gave me her old iPhone. As you might expect, it has proceeded to become a massive time-suck, not helped by my laptop being unusable during the break and falling apart now (I honestly fully expected to have a Windows 8 tablet by now, but Mom actually seems to be holding out for the more expensive tablet with cellular access).

Confession time: the e-mail address I’ve given on Da Blog in the past, the mwmailsea at yahoo dot com one? I’ve actually checked it very seldomly for years. For the most part, it’s filled up with a bunch of newsletters I signed up for many years ago, some not even intentionally, most of them before I got IE7 and its accompanying RSS reader, that I never really intended to even read, so the signal to noise ratio has been low and I’ve generally used another e-mail address to actually communicate with my family, therapists, and school personnel. Even that address I’ve never checked as obsessively as some people check their e-mail.

Now, however, I’ve hooked up both e-mail accounts to the iPhone’s e-mail app, meaning I now find myself checking both accounts regularly throughout the day. In the process, a funny thing has happened. Those newsletters that I signed up for lo those many years ago, that I’ve never given a second thought to in years? I’ve actually bothered to look at some of them, and some have managed to link me to rather interesting articles, some of which I’ve even gone on to link elsewhere.

For years, e-mail has sort of been the quiet, unsung backing of Internet communication. As Google, Facebook, Twitter, and more have continued to seize the headlines, e-mail has remained the same, quietly plugging away and serving as the backbone of everything else. Almost every time you’ve set up an account on a new site, or submitted a blog comment, you’ve had to provide a valid e-mail address, but e-mail itself has remained under the radar, with most people using it either for one-on-one communication or as a dummy to throw at those sites asking for one. But with e-mail now taking a newly central role on smartphones and tablets, it’s possible it could be the key to understanding the future of the Internet.

Earlier in this series, I mentioned that there may soon be a new syndication mechanism geared towards blogs, one that doesn’t simply collect text the way RSS does but allows blog creators to optimally place ads and other content. Could the e-mail newsletter be that mechanism? E-mail allows for the addition of images to such an extent that you can make it look like your actual website in a way RSS doesn’t allow, and most blogs already have the ability to subscribe via e-mail tucked away somewhere. Even the structure is more in your control; many big sites offer a daily roundup of relevant stories in one complete package. It does have a number of drawbacks; besides the susceptibility to spam and viruses, which leads many e-mail providers to put up filters that break images, signing up for too many newsletters could overwhelm you without filters to move them into folders, which doesn’t always work. (This is the case with RSS as well, but folders are easier and more reliable there.)

Webcomics tend not to support e-mail delivery. There seems to be a philosophy around the webcomics community these days that says that the design of your site is as much a part of your comic as the comic itself. There’s something to be said for that, but only insofar as the design of your site serves to define your site. As Part IV should have made clear, site design becomes less important in a mobile world, unless you’re talking about the design of your app, which is pretty much the same thing. Besides the ability to customize e-mail to look more like your site, two elements are really the only ones important enough to be included in an e-mail, assuming you don’t just ape what you’re putting in RSS feeds already (for comics that put their comic images in their RSS feeds): an ad and perhaps a link to the store. This could be another place where “comics page” services could come in handy, if not with delivering comic images alongside ads the revenue from which gets passed on to creators, then at least with links to comics that have updated since the last e-mail.

Perhaps the revival of e-mail could be the key to bringing everything together into the decentralized social network I put forward at the end of Part III. It won’t be able to do everything, since e-mail is still geared more towards one-to-one communication, and other things will need to take the role currently filled by the social networks of today – although Tumblr and Twitter might cover most of what’s needed, especially since most e-mail clients allow you to sort your contacts into groups that you can then contact all of with the push of a button, serving a similar function to Google+’s circles. Regardless of anything else, it seems clear to me that e-mail is a critical cog in understanding the Internet of the future.

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