Even the initial forays into brainstorming for this article were full of irony, since I must admit to hearing about Google’s new Gmail free e-mail service through Google News and following up on my curiosity by doing a few searches on their site. How readily we become accustomed to simple tools, like the search engine and e-mail, which make our lives more efficient and enjoyable! Gmail’s main selling points are its titanic gigabyte worth of message storage, and unique organizational features that link related archived e-mails into “conversations”.

Another admission of mine is that I am an e-mail connoisseur. I enjoy reading eloquent e-mails, and I try to linger over my own compositions, carefully assembling my feelings and choice phrases. All this is done with the ever-present subconscious thought that anything created digitally could one day disappear, even in mid-creation. At worst, e-mails may never reach their intended audiences, causing both a breakdown in communication, and frustration on both ends. At best, even well written e-mails are doomed to a fate of gradual decline, slowly drifting towards the bottom of our e-mail queues, until they eventually fall off into the digital netherworld. Sometimes I like to imagine what really happens to all of this unaccounted for data. Pixels to pixels, bytes to bytes, I hope.

Perhaps we all gloss over this aspect of digital communications at our peril. When I feel ambitious, I sometimes back up my hard drive, and sometimes after well-composed e-mails to dear friends, I print them out to save for when I am old and crotchety and need remembrance of old loves. But, even these tangible copies get misplaced, or become scrap for jotting down phone numbers and addresses. Many people jump to the conclusion that digital documents are so fragile that we don’t need to worry about where they end up after they are “deleted”. There are several people in my family who diligently rely on a paper shredder to guard their privacy when discarding bills and old receipts and tax forms, but none who are diligent about destroying the contents of old e-mail accounts.

This is no small matter when people accrue new accounts with each new job, new school, or new home Internet provider. Many never bother to cancel old accounts, assuming that this will be done automatically when the time is right. So far, I have been comforted by the fact that it is not really profitable for these various account providers to continue to host my e-mail on their servers long after I have closed my accounts. This is beginning to change, as data mining and contextual advertising cross paths with cheaper and cheaper storage solutions. When the operational cost of hosting a gigabyte worth of e-mail is less than 5 dollars, then we all need to reassess the term “free e-mail service”.

Granted, when I sign up for a free e-mail account, I am well aware of the costs and benefits of using the account. I realize that some of my messages may be blocked as spam, that sometimes the service is slow, or down, and that there is always a remote possibility that someone may be eavesdropping on my personal correspondences. I also am well aware that I cannot ignore my accounts for months on end, or else they will be either canceled automatically, or be so full of spam as to be rendered inoperable. However, I also view the limits on my existing accounts as a sort of automatic organizational tool, gently reminding me that I don’t really need to keep e-mails that are over a year old. Being able to use my accounts in Tunisia or Jordan, or any other exotic location for that matter, is also quite appealing. E-mail really is a “killer app” when it comes to bringing people together who might otherwise not be able to communicate, but it also has the potential to reveal much information about users to various corporations.

For ad agencies, this information is a potential goldmine, and privacy watchdogs are legitimately concerned, for e-mail is now a very widespread and unassuming method to track consumer’s trends. These agencies take data trends and create customized ads based on hundreds of contexts found in saved e-mails. Industry experts try to sell this concept as “efficiency”, but what might very well result is a deterioration of consumer privacy. A simple but frightening concept is to think about a Gmail account full of hundreds of megabytes of personal e-mails, being analyzed for various trends. Google claims that no humans are involved in the matching of ads to individual e-mails, but with such financial incentive to pass along this information to marketing firms, how sure can we all be that Google will respect this separation indefinitely? In fact, the more e-mail people accrue in their accounts, and the more people who sign up for the service, the more valuable it becomes for data mining purposes.

If the last few years of nutritional hysteria have taught us anything, it is that nothing is free. “Fat free” muffins the size of grapefruit still contain an astonishingly high amount of calories. To use this analogy with free e-mail service, Google mail is the super-sized version of free e-mail accounts. Quantity does have a quality all its own, but do we as consumers really need to cram more ads down our throats for the sake of another e-mail account? If we choose to do so, then at least we need to be realistic with ourselves and accept the trade-offs, in this case, regular exercise in the form of consumer vigilance.