Book Reviews

Esther Milne. Email and the Everyday: Stories of Disclosure, Trust, and Digital Labor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021. 336p. Hardcover, $35.00 (ISBN 978-0-262-04563-6).

Book cover for Email and the Everyday: Stories of Disclosure, Trust, and Digital Labor

As academic library workers, we often disparage the ways in which email runs our lives as a bureaucratic and affective technology. Typically we give it no more thought due to its banality in our lives. It is strangely familiar, boring, and often an afterthought, until we make a poorly calculated, and usually extraordinary, misstep. Esther Milne argues that this tension between the banal and extraordinary is what makes email a compelling focus for media and cultural studies, given the arrival of “moments where email communication becomes odd, unfamiliar, and at times perhaps even exotic” (15). Despite its omnipresence, Milne notes that email has been largely overlooked by these fields, and this book is an ambitious attempt at undertaking a wide view of email as a larger media landscape. For Milne, email is never simply just correspondence; it must be understood broadly in terms of its structure, infrastructure, and variant contexts of use.

Milne’s introduction to the book focuses on providing a broader context to validate email as a phenomenon worthy of deeper study, informed by historical, methodological, and theoretical approaches. While well-represented in studies about workplace behavior and email use, linguistics, letter-writing, literature, and internet history, Milne specifically notes its underrepresentation in media, communications, and cultural studies research, despite several specific works by media scholars. More glaring to Milne is the astonishing gap given that cultural theory often studies the “everyday”; examples include the work of Donna Haraway, Nick Couldry, and Ben Highmore. Milne’s book’s focus on the sociotechnical and affective practices around email’s use is informed by two mixed-method online surveys (both N > 1,000), interviews, and close analysis of primary and secondary sources. Central to Milne’s engagement with the everyday is her focus on stories and the complexity of email as a “media manifold” as described by Couldry.

The remainder of the book focuses on three major themes: “Histories and Landscapes” (email’s technical and historical foundations); “Affect and Labor” (exemplified through both institutional email and email lists); and “Archives and Publics,” which relates how email constructs, comprises, and interacts with the public sphere and cultural landscape. The first two chapters in the “Histories and Landscapes” section focus on primary moments in email history through sociotechnical and metahistorical lenses. Milne explores primary stories and their context (the construction of email address syntax and header formats bound to the conditions or structures under which they were needed or created), as well as counterclaims to narratives of invention of email as a means to demonstrate the tension between the banality and exceptionality of the everyday. The third chapter in the section focuses more broadly on the “email industry”—including email providers, marketing firms, and analytics vendors—to demonstrate the complexity of email as a media manifold. Unlike commercial sectors like the entertainment business, the email industry has also been understudied by media and cultural studies. Email analytics belie the complexity of how people interact with email on a variety of devices, and how many email providers (for example: Gmail, operated by Google), make changes to give them a competitive advantage.

The chapters in “Affect and Labor” investigate in more depth how email is used: first, workplace use of email and its role as a form of “bureaucratic register” laden with affect, and the affective labor involved with email list moderation. Milne describes the changing nature of work and our own perceptions of bureaucracy, exemplified by how we use and interact with email and its affective and psychological impact on each of us. While bureaucracy is commonly viewed as reducing emotion or affect, Milne describes a slippage from the conventional register as “bureaucratic intensity,” wherein affect bubbles to the surface in work email in ways that are in hindsight recognized as unacceptable. Milne’s analysis of email list moderation echoes recent scholarly work on social media content moderation, although she rightfully notes that the practice predates it. Her stories on email list use and moderation center on the importance of sharing stories in various support groups, and how moderators view their (often uncompensated) labor. The two chapters in “Archives and Publics” focus on how emails constitute various public spheres and domains as well as how they get reinterpreted in various settings. The first chapter focuses on case studies of the slippage among public, personal, professional, and private email by investigating the Enron corpus and Hillary Clinton’s private email used during her tenure as Secretary of State and how disclosure operates across these contexts. Like Milne’s other examples, she argues that these public and private domains are in tension. The final chapter investigates email as an art form and aesthetic subject, investigating how it has been informed by past stylistic and creative practices such as epistolary literature and mail art, and through looking at specific creative works represented as or representative of email.

Email and the Everyday meets Milne’s goal of addressing the complexity of email as a ubiquitous media landscape through evocative and familiar stories of the everyday drawn from her research methodology and contextualized through additional examples drawn from secondary sources. While her project is ambitious and is largely successful, its major weaknesses relate to its ambition. The shift across various stories demonstrates the complexity of email as a media manifold; but, at times, any given section or chapter could have gone deeper. Milne also hastily engages with email archives in her conclusion but overlooks more recent work by archivists. Nonetheless, the book has done its duty to argue for more in-depth scholarly investigation. Library workers curious about how to best serve media and cultural studies scholars are encouraged to read this book as they engage with how our institutions can support the study of email considering this manifold complexity: as record, media, commercial sector, and cultural phenomenon.—Mark A. Matienzo, Stanford University

Copyright Mark A. Matienzo

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