My first email address that wasn’t tied to a major online provider like AOL was firstname.lastname@example.org. It came from this local ISP in my home town. It was this cute all you could download on a 14.4 modem affair for about $25.00 a month. The reason that this ISP was surviving was that they were one of the first to offer the unlimited model, rather than the hourly rate for logging in. I thought that this was the best of all possibilities because I had been mowing the lawn for years just for the chance to log in a few more hours. This plan, however, came with one major drawback: the email address had to be shared. Everyone in the family had access. They might not have checked the address all that often, but they had access to it. Most importantly, my father had access to it.
Upon the occasion of my posting to a newsgroup with less than desirable users, I received an absolute torrent of email. Per our arrangement with Cyberdrive, my father received those emails too. After quite a long discussion about cyber safety (which didn’t really have a term at the time, so I’m pretty sure we just called it safety), he decided to shut down the account and I decided that sharing an e-mail address with my father was just about the worst idea ever.
I didn’t want him to know everything that I was up to, and I’m sure he didn’t really want to know either. We both realized that there was a level of trust and privacy that had to be built into our relationship. We had to figure out a way for the model of not sharing an account to work. I’m not sure we ever talked it through, but a few weeks after that incident (I had been grounded for a bit during that time), we both stopped checking that account and we moved on to our separate ones. It made sense to do so, but we knew that something had been lost. We used to be able to view the state of things from our family email account. I would get my updates from my newsletters and my father would get his. Sharing the email account made it easier to appreciate the things that we were both a part of. Now we didn’t have that.
I know other families that still do this. Everyone logs into one gmail account. It is something that prevents anyone going too far off the deep end of perversion or illegal activity. It focuses our attention on the family itself rather than the individual conversations. The privacy loss, though, is hard to swallow. When anyone makes a mistake or signs up for a ridiculous list-serve, we all pay the price. We want to send out a united message from a single source, but we don’t want to be pigeonholed into a single identity or be unable to develop our own interests.
I wonder if there is a compromise that exists. I wonder if Facebook and other social networks might help us to maintain that level of inclusion without the headache of solely a family identity. They have shifted our expectation of what should be our own. They have let us connect to family members but not be swallowed by this association. Already, these services are stating the default sharing to be public rather than private. This allows me to group my family’s responses on walls and in twitter lists. I can see the communication and I can watch it grow. Somehow, this simple act of making more things public has allowed my family to share the things that they might not think to do, but keep hidden the things that are none of my business.
Social networks are just better at communicating what is yours, mine, and ours. Email just dumps everything into one pot and forces us to sort it out. This may be inciting in order to completely control what we are all getting into, but it spells disaster for the relationships we are trying to build. We need autonomy. We need trust and respect. In short, we may need Facebook.