science of us

Writing a Practice Email Feels Like Looking Into a Mirror

Photo: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

Last week I was feeling sad after a digital exchange, so I started describing it in an email to a friend. I sounded petty and stupid, though, so I deleted it and started over. The new version still made me sound petty and stupid, and I began to realize that I was in fact just being petty and stupid. I deleted the whole thing and felt shame and relief.

Picturing my friend reading it immediately after I sent it, her face sort of falling as she, presumably, would have thought, “Ah, hm, maybe this is on you,” was its own form of guidance.

“The medium is the message,” Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964: The thing we communicate with is as important as the thing we’re actually communicating. A new study, published in PLOS ONE, has apparently proven McLuhan’s theory with data. According to the researchers’ explanatory video, “We may think of historical eras based on their dominant communication technology: the era of writing, the era of printing, the era of film and radio, the era of television, and the era of the internet.”

There’s a lot more in the study about how the rise of print, for instance, corresponded to the rise of ideas (and, therefore, scientists and authors, etc.), whereas the rise of television corresponded to the rise of entertainment (and, therefore, athletes and actors, etc.), but I’m going to set that aside for now and ask: Is that why it’s so weirdly clarifying to copy and paste a Google doc into the body of an email (from one medium into another), which somehow highlights all the ways it sounds wrong?

And is that why reading and rereading a single email on different devices can sometimes give the same message entirely different tones? (An email that reads on my phone as curt and chilly, for instance, can later read on my desktop as careful and resigned. Unless I have lost my mind.) Is it all because the medium is the message, on a micro scale, throughout the internet? In any case, I recommend writing “practice emails,” like the petty one I started and subsequently abandoned the other day, in case anyone else is ever feeling bad and burnishing a complaint (see also: “The lost art of the unsent angry letter”). Pasting them from one medium into another (from thought into email — and, sure, thought is its own kind of medium) can feel like a modern version of looking into a mirror, or watching yourself on television: revealing, informative, terrible.

Writing a Practice Email Feels Like Looking Into a Mirror