Generations of email

Columnist Janet Kornblum on helping our parents and grandparents get online. 

Mar 3, 2020, 12:44 am*

Internet Culture

Janet Kornblum 

Janet Kornblum

Back in 1995 I jumped in to help my aunt, whose husband had just died. They’d lived a simple life, going out for a lunch, then maybe some browsing at Goodwill or a trip to the bank. They had a phone and a TV, and that’s where technology began and ended. When they wanted to communicate with the outside world, they sometimes called. But they grew up in an era when phone calls cost a lot of money. So mostly, they wrote letters (those things that require paper and pens and stamps and saliva).

I gave Aunt Betty my phone numbers and asked her to call. But every time I went to pick up messages, I’d hear a grunt and then click. Even without caller ID I knew it was her. So I asked her why she  she never left an actual message.

“The beep comes too fast,” she told me.


Then I realized what was happening.

“Betty: you leave the message AFTER the beep,” I told her.


Betty, alas, had missed the entire instructional period of answering machines. When we as a culture  began using this new  communications tool, outgoing messages regularly said, “Leave a message after the tone.”  We learned together.

I remind myself of this every time time Betty (or another relative) asks me a technology question.

It’s so tempting to join with the Internet denizens who spend time making fun of technology outsiders (read: old people. And old, in Internet parlance, is pretty much anyone older than the youngest person on the Tumblr or blog or whatever.).

But the truth is, they don’t know because they never learned how to email or how to log on. While the rest of us were learning, they were just getting used to affordable long distance and fax machines. They missed the instructional period of computers and the Internet, unlike those of us who either learned how to click a mouse before holding a bottle or who started picking up email at even 20 or 30.

So when my aunt or any other older relative asks me about email, for example, and how to manage it, I try to explain it to her: Nobody does email the same way. Some people let their email pile up. Some people fastidiously filter it. Some hardly read it at all, figuring if it’s important enough, someone will Tweet or Facebook them.

So I tell these relatives to do something they probably already think is impossible. I tell them: Go online. Try. Do it.  It really is the only way to learn.

Technology is like fashion. Some think they know the absolute right and wrong answers (the fashion police). But really, there are no rules. Most of us sort of go along, picking up stuff randomly and then putting it together in a way that we personally find appealing.

While it may look like everybody knows what they’re doing, the truth is, none of us know what we are doing.

Think about it. Did someone sit down and teach you how to read a Tumblr? Probably not. But every time a new site launches, we have to learn it. Look at Pinterest. Last year nobody knew what it was. People are still trying to figure it out. But we dive in and mess around. We read stories, we share information.

The people who get left behind are the ones who don’t necessarily jump on these new services when they launch. They’re the ones who think there are rules. Real, hard and fast rules.

And there aren’t.

So, on a recent visit to my folks when we were discussing technology again, I leaned forward on the overstuffed couch and said,

“I have a secret to tell you: Nobody knows what they’re doing. They may tell you about ‘netiquette’ and  the proper way to do things. They may tell you what to tweet and how to tweet. They may tell you what is okay and what is not okay to post on this new Pinterest thing. But the truth is, they don’t know either. They’re making up the rules as they go along.”

Remaining off-line, simply because you’re worried about violating rules that don’t exist, almost guarantees that you’ll be left behind even more.

Then I tell them: “Go out and make some rules of your own.”

I’m not sure if it’s worked, but when I get an email from Betty, I’ll let you know. She mastered the phone message. I have confidence she can master anything.

Janet Kornblum is a journalist, writer, media trainer and, believe it or not, has a bachelor’s degree in political science. She also does other stuff but we won’t get into that now. You can contact her at [email protected]

Photograph by Tobyotter and Janet Kornblum. 

Share this article
*First Published: Nov 14, 2012, 4:43 pm