You’ve Got Mail and the Internet of Ordinary People

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The Internet taught me how to type, and FOMO—fear of missing out—remained my biggest motivator. I was in middle school and I wanted to keep up with the conversational flow in eighteen-and-under, kids-only chat rooms, which flooded with words faster than I could answer. By the time I would reply, everyone else was on to something else and my one line hung there, unacknowledged, sandwiched between other people’s conversations. Lagging behind socially in real life was one thing. I wasn’t about to let it happen to me on the World Wide Web as well.

Technically, Mavis Beacon should get partial credit as my first teacher. I started on the Mavis software in my grade school computer class a year or so before my parents set up a dial-up-connected computer in our dining room. But Miss Beacon was a stressful teacher. I concentrated too hard on my fingers, looking at my hands as I typed, causing typos as I hit the wrong keys.

“Eventually, you should be able to read off a piece of paper and type at the same time,” our instructor said. I didn’t think I’d ever get to that level, but then the Internet happened and I never stopped typing.

I was still getting my finger placement down when I saw You’ve Got Mail in 1998 with my childhood best friend. It was holiday break, free days of indulgence and laziness filled with hot chocolate, new books, and feel-good movies. In a week, we’d be back to life, back to reality, back to eighth grade. Obnoxious classmates, unrequited crushes, and pre-algebra homework—the memories alone are gross. But for that day, we were in our local Carmike Cinemas in the big back theater, the one with two aisles and doors on either side.

When it was over, we confirmed our enjoyment the way we did all movies back then.

“I liked it!” one of us exclaimed as we walked across the lobby.

“Yeah!” the other said with mutual enthusiasm. “It was cute.”

That was the extent of our movie analysis.

You’ve Got Mail is Nora Ephron’s remake of the 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, a film based on the 1937 Miklós László play Parfumerie, which in turn inspired the 1963 musical She Loves Me, a recent revival and the first livestreamed Broadway musical. The tale of two lonelyhearts who bicker when face to face yet connect through anonymous correspondence and eventually fall in love is a timeless story that endures through numerous technological translations. In the 1990s chat-room world of identity-concealing screen names, the narrative was practically begging to be updated for a newly online audience.

Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are at their late ’90s best. They will always be Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox to me—Meg in her adorable blonde pixie and Tom with his goofy curly hair. Kathleen is the proprietor of a children’s bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner (a wink to the film’s predecessor), a humble place that soon sits in the shadow of the newest link in Joe’s family chain, Fox Books, a fictional take on Barnes & Noble. Kathleen and Joe show a glimpse of their possible chemistry at their first-name-only meet-cute, until they later learn each other’s last name and they realize the significance. They spar in their own ways—Joe, through insults, and Kathleen, by getting tongue-tied and wishing she was able to say what she wants to say in the moment. Unbeknownst to either of them, Kathleen and Joe are writing emails about their lives to ShopGirl (Kathleen) and NY152 (Joe) and, of course, slowly falling in love. Through the power of the Internet, Joe teaches Kathleen to stand up for herself and she opens him up to his sensitive side. There are silly and sad moments, but happy endings for all.

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You’ve Got Mail was one of the first movies to depict the Internet as it affects the lives of ordinary users. Not computer geniuses or hackers or stereotypical nerds hiding in a basement, but interesting, flawed people—people we know in our everyday life. People like us. The revelatory statement this movie makes is that enjoying the connection the Internet brings us doesn’t make us pathetic or weird. It can be a way to make friends, find love, and create lasting relationships. There was shame in admitting this twenty years ago, but now, it’s common knowledge.

I wanted to be Kathleen Kelly, her name crisp with that double-kay sound. She was a cool adult, one of the first fictional characters to give me an idea of the kind of life I’d like to lead. Asking a child what she wants to be when she grows up is a question that always pertains to occupation. Though being a bookstore owner was extremely appealing, it was more than the job. With Kathleen, it was about how she lived her life, how she looked at the world around her. Kathleen bought flowers just because. She wore black in the fall and pastels in the spring. Better yet, she was human, not an impossibly perfect idealized person. She said the wrong things and agonized over it for hours, just like I did. We both loved books and the Internet, a contradiction of analog and technology. And like Kathleen Kelly, I tried to hide my online obsession. It felt embarrassing, as if it was a sign that I didn’t know how to act like a human, which, considering I was an awkward preteen, I kind of didn’t.

bookstore

At the beginning of the film, both Kathleen and Joe double check that their then-significant others are out of their apartments before signing online; the loud dial-up screech would have given them away. This isn’t because of the fear of their SOs finding out they were chatting with a stranger—that is never brought up—but because sheer pleasure in the Internet felt like something they needed to hide. This technological incompatibility extended into other areas of their lives and ultimately causes both Joe and Kathleen to leave their former flames.

“You think that thing is your friend, but it’s not!” calls out Kathleen’s boyfriend, played by Greg Kinnear, as he runs out the door. He’s a self-proclaimed Luddite, the dissenting opinion, the one person still using a typewriter in 1998 (a modern one at that, not even a vintage model as is trendy with hipsters today). There always has to be one. Today’s equivalent are people who take themselves too seriously to snap a selfie and refuse to join Facebook, requiring a personal invitation for parties. On the other side is Joe’s fast-talking, espresso-downing girlfriend, the fantastic Parker Posey, who would be all over Twitter if it existed at the time. She is more of a caricature and less developed than Kinnear’s character, but there’s no doubt her brass one-liners (“Murray Chilton died, which makes one less person I’m not speaking to.”) would be retweeted for days.

The scene midway through the movie of Joe and Kathleen meeting in a coffee shop, which tips the scale of power in his favor, as he learns her identity first, is possibly the first depiction of online strangers meeting each other in person. To do so was not commonplace at the time, and Kathleen hesitates before accepting his offer. “Meet?” she says out loud to herself after reading his email, a look of bewilderment in her eyes before shutting her laptop lid. There are two words that sum up what everyone thought of meeting someone online at the time: serial killer. Joe fails to reveal himself to her, and instead sits at her table and, to her exasperation, continues to chat. When NY152 apparently stands her up, Kathleen’s friends even consider the possibility that he didn’t show because he was the rooftop killer splashed on the front page of that morning’s paper. Which wouldn’t be an unheard-of thought back then. The idea of Tinder— now that would have been unbelievable.

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In fact, at the time that the film was released, I was being taught at school and at home to never, ever, ever give out identifying information online, no exceptions. There was this distinction between your online life and your “real” one. I still think this is good advice for minors, so it’s strange for me to see teens using their real names and photos on Twitter or Instagram, but I suppose that’s the difference between my generation and the next. Today’s teens have grown up with the Internet so deeply ingrained in their lives that many of them know how to cultivate their online image from a young age. As a teenager myself, I used movie character avatars on LiveJournal, yet many of today’s teens claim their own name’s dot-com before they’re out of high school. It’s not unusual for them to have friends across the country that they’ve met over Tumblr, just as I kept my LiveJournal pals to myself. And the identity fear-mongering worked on me, at least for a while. It took until my late twenties until I finally changed my Twitter handle into my full name.

After selling her store and collecting her bearings, Kathleen eventually allows Joe into her life and they become friends. She learns to trust him the same way any woman does with a guy she meets through online dating—slowly and with an open heart. When she first talks to Joe about the guy she was supposed to meet in the coffee shop, she’s embarrassed. “I don’t actually know him,” she admits before falling back into a pile of pillows, burying her face in shame. “I only know him through the, uh… you’re never going to believe this….” “Oh, let me guess,” Joe says. “Through the Internet?” Her eyes widen as she lets out, “Yes!” with relief. They bond over their love of AOL’s email notification system. “You’ve got mail,” Joe says. “Those are powerful words.” From hiding our true identities to claiming websites with our full names on display, we still crave true human connection; technology hasn’t changed so much as evolved. As Kathleen writes in an email to Joe, “The odd thing about this form of communication is that you’re more likely to talk about nothing than something. But I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.”

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It’s a little funny that it was the Internet-induced FOMO that got me typing back in the late ’90s when back then there were no words to describe the sensation of feeling technologically left out. Honestly, it doesn’t take the Internet for a teenager to feel out of place. Even without the latest apps and social media obsessions, adolescence is all about playing catch-up, doing the best to seem with it, feeling like everyone else is hanging out without you—or at least it was like that for me.

Today, we are all Joes and Kathleens, meeting with strangers for coffee and drinks in cities across the country and taking chances on someone we’ve never seen in the flesh. The stigma towards online dating has changed dramatically compared to even just eleven years ago when the Pew Research Center first polled Americans about online dating in 2005. Use of dating apps has nearly tripled from 2013 to 2015, jumping from a lowly ten percent of 18-24 year olds to twenty-seven percent. My age bracket, 25-34, holds steady at twenty-two percent, and I’m part of that demographic. Every time I meet a guy off OKCupid, I echo the same words that Joe said: “Why am I even doing this? Why am I compelled to even meet him??” It’s nerve-racking, to put yourself in such a vulnerable position, but it’s the only way forward. Ultimately, no matter how comfortable we may feel behind a computer screen, the only certainty can be found in the real, face-to-face moments, even if, like Kathleen Kelly trying to find the exact words, we end up tongue-tied.

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Image credits: Feature image, image 1, image 2, image 3, image 4.


Andrea Laurion is a writer and comedian from Pittsburgh, PA. Her essays and humor writing have appeared The Hairpin, The Billfold, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Neutrons Protons, and The Toast, among others. More from this author →