Hypothetical death match: E-mail vs. the Web

You must give up one or the other -- just play along with me now -- so how do you intend to work and live the rest of your life?

Without the use of e-mail?

Or without access to the Web?

Both will continue to exist; that's important to consider. And only you will be giving up one or the other. Not your friends, family, business associates or competitors. This is an academic exercise (obviously) so there will be no cheating allowed. No IM, text messaging or Web mail to substitute for e-mail. And no borrowing someone else's browser or hiring a personal valet to do your surfing.

Which one are you going to give up? ... And why?

Me? I'm giving up e-mail. My job would be unimaginably difficult without e-mail, but near impossible -- at best -- without access to the Web. Most of the communicating I now do by e-mail could conceivably be accomplished by telephone (and what are those silly envelopes with stamps on them called again?). But I don't see any way to do my job effectively without the Web, even though I'm old enough to have done it back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

This week I put this unpleasant choice to the members of my e-mail list, the Buzzblog Brigade, and as you might expect, the Web pretty much kicked e-mail's backside -- even though a sturdy minority put up a stirring defense of their inboxes. No surprise there. What was surprising, however, was the number of respondents who cited the potential benefits of losing their e-mail privileges and the smaller subset that simply couldn't bring themselves to choose; it was almost as if they feared I had the power to actually take away their toys.

What follows are excerpts from some of the better replies, starting with the minority point of view. Perhaps my favorite defense of e-mail over the Web comes from George Grenley, whose rationale will tug at the heartstrings of all but the most jaded:

"My first thought was the same as yours; I'd give up e-mail," writes Grenley. "I could use stamps, after all. But I probably wouldn't. Truth is, I never wrote letters in the pen-and-ink days, not even to dear old Mom very often. E-mail has made me a better person; I keep in touch with old friends, as we all should."

"Give up the Web? It's great for shopping; I never go in stores anymore," he continues. "Amazon alone is a pretty good reason to have the Web. And the Web is great for scratching that intellectual itch. I settled a bet on the bone structure of monkeys once, thanks to Google and the Web. But in the pre-Web days I was an inveterate collector of catalogs, and so I managed to get much of what I needed, or at least decided I wanted, via catalogs and 1-800 ordering. I think I could get by with that again, if I had to."

"So, gimme e-mail, and take the Web. Mom will appreciate it."

Mark Loosli offers a more hardheaded defense of waving so long to the Web.

"Unlike you, I would give up Web access," writes Loosli. "I work for a leasing company and do much of my financial and equipment research on the Web, so it would be difficult without it.  But there are a number of avenues for the type of research I do.  When it comes to e-mail, it has become much more than a true communications tool.  By scanning documents I can send and receive contracts, financial reports, equipment audits, etc., that in the past were sent by overnight or by fax in a less timely and more expensive fashion."

The cost-benefit analysis works out quite differently for most, however.

"Web? E-mail? Web? E-mail? Sorry e-mail, you're toast," writes Bill Davies. "I would miss the convenience of instant contact around the world but there are alternatives and the operative word there is 'convenience' The activities that I do on the Web could not in many cases be done in any other way."

Practicality, in fact, was a theme repeated throughout the missives from those who say they just couldn't get by without a browser.

"This is an easy one -- I'd give up e-mail in a heartbeat," writes Bill Dotson. "It would be a little difficult at first, but maybe the world would be a slightly better place to if we were required to have actual, personal interactions now and then. … But I couldn't give up use of the Web. Information that used to take days, weeks, months or even years to uncover can now be discovered in a few minutes. Patching my computer, for example, or getting the latest drivers now takes just a few minutes, while the same task would have taken days or weeks in the past (if it was possible at all). Getting rid of e-mail would just send us back to a simpler time, when interpersonal skills were necessary to survive. Doing without the Web would simply be a return to the Stone Age -- give me a stone tablet and chisel."

Howard Stewart says he, too, would give up e-mail, but adds: "I have a question.  What happens to all the spam I get now?  Would it all build up in a spam queue somewhere until it reached a critical level where it would explode in a giant spam mushroom cloud and inundate all the computers worldwide?   I would hate to be the cause of such a disaster but I couldn’t work the way I do without the Web."

Fear not, Howard, for we have alerted Homeland Security.

John Huie wants to split the baby: "At work? … Gotta have my e-mail. …At home? ...Gotta have my Web."

As mentioned, some members of the Brigade did back flips to avoid having to choose at all.

"No way, dude.  Can't do it.  I'd get the DT's really fast and have to be carried away in an ambulance.  The ER would have to bring out a laptop with wireless so I could get my e-mail fix and do a little surfing," laments Ken Diliberto. "I don't know that I could give up either, since you said no cheating."

After a few hundred more words of hemming and hawing, however, Diliberto says he would "probably give up e-mail," before adding, "enough of this suffering."

And then there's the fellow who chose Door No. 3.

"That is quite a choice," says Keith Rosenberg. "Being an IT geek, both are critical to my job and I really cannot do without either. … So I would get rid of both and get a job as a vacation tester!"

But wait, there's more:

From Joel Trammell: "While giving up e-mail would be traumatic and require me to change dramatically how I work, it would be possible. Giving up the Web would require changing not only how I do my job but how I live my life. If I imagine myself on a desert island, giving up e-mail would be inconvenient; giving up the Web would be like losing contact with the world."

I agree, unless of course The Professor couldn't fix the Minnow's ship-to-shore, in which case I'd want e-mail to send an SOS.

From e-mail backer Mariano Reyes: "It's equally clear for me. It would be very tough to do any kind of research without the Web, but it would be completely impossible to get my job done without e-mail.  To coordinate projects with multiple contacts in multiple locations and time zones in a timely fashion, and make sure everyone has the same information about a project would be impossible without e-mail.  And let's not forget the convenience of being able to attach information to e-mail or to be able to store e-mails in folders that serve as document repositories.  It's the same for my personal life, how would I keep in touch with far-flung friends and family without the wonder of e-mail?"

From Brandon Sussman: "OK - this stinks - I was all excited about answering your question.  Then you give my answer, claiming it is yours. In my opinion, the answer is a real no-brainer: I need the Web for research, entertainment and many other one-way communications.  The other two-way methods that are available make loss of e-mail less than a life-threatening concept. I predict that you are going to get a very one-sided response."

From Brian Price: "The communications needs I meet with e-mail could be replaced, albeit inefficiently, with the telephone and voicemail.  Giving up Web-based tools such as search, message boards, knowledge bases, updates, and vendor support would be highly detrimental to my ability to support business needs in a much more direct way and have a much greater impact on my productivity.  Of course you did send this little dilemma out via e-mail.  Kinda goes against the spirit of your exercise."

Oh, the irony had already hit me.

From Dan Wakeman: "I’ll keep the web.  Communication can happen another way (phone) and would evolve in the void.  You limited IM and Web mail, but a bulletin board could be used or some other unthought-of mechanism would evolve.  We have to communicate.  But I need the Web for research, problem solving, technical information, support files, etc."

From Bob Dwyer: "Being that research is my job, I could care less about e-mail. I find it more of a nuisance than aid. Messages are sometimes delayed or never delivered, and those that do reach you usually require a follow-up for clarification. A situation that could be handled with a 30-second phone call becomes a 10-minute waiting game for ‘is this what you meant?’ … Access to the Web, however, is for me, like being a kid in a candy store. It saves me time instead of wasting it. I once heard the Web described as a library with all the books on the floor, open. A pretty good definition if you ask me."

From Fuat Baran: "I think I'd agree with you that eliminating e-mail, especially with a fairly narrow definition of e-mail, would be my choice.  Web browsing and non-email forms of communication provide a much wider variety, bandwidth and future expandability.  Also, as mobile phone/PDA-type applications get smaller and more feature rich, I see more multi-media convergence happening.  Text e-mail, even with attachments will probably be obsolete in the not too distant future in favor of other forms of communication including digital voice and video."

From John Gog: "No doubt about it, I give up e-mail.  From a personal point of view, I save a lot of time paying bills, managing my meager finances, and researching and buying products online.  I get my news reporting from a variety of sources on the Web.  … Professionally, if I couldn’t have the Web, I’d be unable to research problems that affect me and the users on our system daily.  As a system administrator, Web access to knowledge bases, drivers, and updates is essential. E-mail has become more of a pain than anything else. I find that I spend too much time checking for messages because someone will send an e-mail instead of calling me."

From Jack Miller: "That’s easy. I’m giving up email and keeping the Web. Very little critical data or information comes via e-mail and there are replacements for that: telephone, fax, USPS, FedEx, face to face, etc. There is nothing to replace the Web aside from the library. I’d be surprised if the poll turns out any different."

From Jason Thomas: "I would probably say I would prefer to give up e-mail.  You can still converse via blogs and other technologies, and you would probably eliminate one of the major sources of misunderstandings, e-mail.  How many times have we received an e-mail and fired off a response based on the tone of the e-mail?  How many times has that response been wrong? How many times has someone misinterpreted an e-mail?  It's harder to do that if one makes a phone call, and I don't think it would be half-bad to return to that as a means of communication."

From Jim Albright: "I definitely agree with you on this one.  While e-Mail has greatly increased the efficiency with which I communicate, there ARE alternatives.  My job would be almost impossible, however, without the Web.  My memories of knowledge bases distributed on CD with monthly or quarterly updates are haunting enough, but the thought of returning to a time when I had to wait DAYS for a patch to arrive on a mailed-out disk is just unbearable.  I recall an instance in the 'good old days' when I was so desperate for a service pack that I placed a 3-hour toll call to Microsoft’s BBS in Washington (from New Jersey) to download it at 1200 baud, rather than wait for it to arrive via the USPS. Instant access to updated information and software has become an integral part of the way in which I do business."

From Josh Stella: "It didn't take me long to agree with you. As an application architect, my job would be impossible without the Web. Most of the essential e-mails I get/send are files to be used in one project or another, and so these could be communicated in other ways (things like Visio files can be made into Web pages, and source code is in the CVS repository). In fact, I think most of the 'meat' of what I do is done in meetings and in creating deliverables, so leaving off e-mail may not be so bad. Oh, but then I wouldn't know the current price on Viagra and Costa Rican real estate and that would be a tragedy of the first order..."

From Chris Sloop: "I could never go with out e-mail! Our business relies heavily on e-mail for communications of status and issues amongst our team. I also use e-mail to track our IT systems as to what is up and down and since I can get e-mail almost anywhere, this is a great form of communication. On the other hand, we have so many tools that are based on the Web, it would be equally as difficult to give up … but I have people who work for me monitoring these things anyhow. The biggest loss of the Web would be my capability to do research."

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