Considering how much technology has permeated our culture in the last decade and how much it continues to evolve through transient shibboleths, a film like You’ve Got Mail seems destined for dismissal. With a title that was relevant for all of a few seconds in the mid to late ‘90s, and a gee-whiz approach to then-novel iconography that shows off the embarrassing pock mocks of an internet still in its infancy, the film appears as though it’s earned its reputation as woefully antiquated. In 1998, the internet was but a whimsical curio for casual, non-technical users. In one scene Joe (Tom Hanks) messages Kathleen (Meg Ryan) on AOL Chat unexpectedly: “I had a feeling you’d be online.” Those were the days when someone could be offline; it constituted, in fact, most of the day. The internet is now, of course, as ubiquitous as oxygen and electricity.
You’ve Got Mail follows Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox, anonymous email pen pals who unwittingly meet each other in real life and become bookstore business rivals. Joe’s family franchise opens a big-box store up the block from Kathleen’s children’s bookstore, a beloved cornerstone of the Upper West Side neighborhood that cannot survive the competition. Once Kathleen finds out Joe is Joe Fox of Fox Books, she denounces him as just another suit behind a faceless corporation, but their initial chemistry only fuels their dislike exponentially as they sublimate their individual anxieties about their identity and accomplishments onto each other (Kathleen, the bleeding-heart liberal who adamantly stays oblivious to big-box gentrification; Joe, the shrewd businessman who desires emotional intelligence so he can sustain a relationship longer than his father’s many failed marriages).
Behind closed doors, after their respective partners have left for work, Kathleen and Joe connect to their anonymous pen pal, endearingly reveal their softer side, and begin to embrace their adolescent, highly romanticized ideas of love. Both treat email sacredly, like letters lovingly stored away in shoe boxes (a ritual essentially performed in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, on which You’ve Got Mail is based).
With a rule to never share specifics about their lives, “ShopGirl” and “NYC152” are free to explore their thoughts, bounce ideas off a wall they can’t see but know is there. “Sometimes I wonder about my life,” Kathleen writes to NYC152. “I lead a small life. Well, valuable, but small. And sometimes I wonder: do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? … I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So goodnight, dear void.”
Kathleen and Joe sound out a version of their idealized self to somebody whom they also fictionalize. But falling in love over email is a fiction that can be sustained infinitely, unlike the projecting that occurs during the honeymoon period of any new relationship, or the simple unrequited infatuation of grade school. It’s more romanticized when you reveal only what you want the other person to see, and, because the film is set in 1998, Joe and Kathleen’s online identities can only be depicted through the salience of their words.
It’s true that the anonymous person Kathleen and Joe each falls in love with are not real people, but they’re also simultaneously more real than the persona Kathleen and Joe project to the world. Philosopher Walter Ong argues in Orality and Literacy that the technology of writing has made us more fully realized individuals because of its effects on our consciousness, which is exactly what the two characters inadvertently achieve through their correspondence: “To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it,” writes Ong. “Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word.” He also believes that these types of transformations can be uplifting and that “writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life. To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.”
Because email is written communication, an artificial technology, it heightens this process of idealization and allows Joe and Kathleen to more fully flesh out the person they want to be in a way that could never develop with face-to-face communication. And since each loathe what the other represents, despite their chemistry, Joe and Kathleen would never have even considered each other as a potential mate.
Email becomes their sanctuary, a medium to escape the trials and tribulations of New York City adult life, its chaos and uncertainty, its harsh realities and constant annoyances, a way to avoid their loveless relationships with people who are a reflection of their worst selves. Kathleen’s boyfriend Frank (Greg Kinnear), a pretentious pseudo-intellectual/newspaper columnist dead-set against technology, is Kathleen at her worst. He clings to the old, scoffs at the new, and will never understand the irony of favouring electric typewriters over computers. In a similar way, Kathleen, who favors handkerchiefs over Kleenex, does not want to accept the fact that her store, whilst a cherished part of the community, follows an outdated business model. As she learns to lead the bigger life she’s been afraid of having, Joe is equally tired of being just a suit, having more money than he knows what to do with, and distant family relations that leave him unsatisfied.
It may be easy to write off You’ve Got Mail as weirdly old-fashioned—you might wince when you hear that distantly familiar dial-up sound, which becomes an aural motif in the film–but it is just as possible to celebrate it, because the film is witness to a particular time in internet culture when it wasn’t considered a culture at all (or at most, a sub-culture). The film is a rare snapshot of a past we don’t typically care to remember, a time in which the internet was a barely realized, highly idealized technology that could facilitate barely realized, highly idealized romantic love.
Note: The Warner Bros. marketing website for this film is still alive, and worth perusing for a blast to the past.