The Geek Poet Strikes Back

Thirty years after he started email at UNC, Paul Jones asks for your forgiveness — and your help in killing it. It’s not the first time he’s chased something impossible.
Our man is at his desk, checking his social networking sites. His long, wavy, gray hair — for which he was inducted into the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists (which lives online — falls over his turtleneck, just one eye-catching sight in an office tumbling with books and monitors and forgotten computers and one large, stuffed, purple-and-green dragon. He has no windows to open, most certainly none that belong to the eponymous operating system. He does not require them. Enough portals already exist inside his own mind to birth any alternate universe he wishes, including one in which the scourge of email no longer torments the human race.

And that is where our story begins.

Jones. engages in a conversation via private Facebook message with a HIGH-LEVEL CAMPUS ADMINISTRATOR.

Admin. I just sent you an email.

Jones. Why didn’t you just post what you wanted to say here? [Aside] I did not reply,“You idiot,” because he’s a guy who I like who is also responsible for my salary.

Admin. Because I think you should read email.

Jones. That’s very nice, but I told you in advance that I was giving up email.

Admin. But, I thought you were only going to do it for a couple of weeks!

Jones. No, this is forever.

Admin. [Panicked, fearful.] What?? But how will I reach you?

Jones lets loose his devilish, throaty laugh. As a published poet (he holds an MFA in the field from Warren Wilson College), he loves the comedic irony of this wink-wink moment with the audience, which he shared during a presentation to graduate students in a health communication class in February. But as a certified technological nerd (he holds a bachelor’s in computer science from N.C. State), who still has a pocket protector somewhere beneath the detritus of his office to prove it, Jones knows his anecdote also aptly describes both the merits and the madness of his current project: the complete abolition of email in favor of what he calls faster, more interactive, more efficient forms of communication.

Got a message for Jones? Find him on Facebook, Twitter or instant message. Got a page you want him to edit? Upload it to Google Docs. Got a meeting to schedule with him? Google calendar. Got a picture you’d like to share of your cute cat? Just don’t.

(Or, if you must, please use a photo-sharing site.)

“I want appropriate streams of communication,” Jones says, his twangy voice rising theatrically. “I want to be able to interact quickly when I want to interact quickly; I want to edit when I want to edit; I want to make appointments when I want to make appointments.”

He pounds his fist on the table. “And I don’t want any attachments! Ever!”

What Jones has initiated for himself and what he seeks for others is the destruction of a system for which he helped write the code 30 years ago as a member of the Office of Information Technology at Carolina, a system that he peddled, office-by-campus-office, through the glorious low-rent visual of old-school slides, touting email as the greatest thing since … well, since computers themselves.

“In the late ’70s, not only did I fall under the spell of email,” says Jones, a clinical associate professor in both the journalism and information and library science schools, “I just thought it was the greatest thing on the planet. And it was. I made it my job to go around campus and tell people to use email.”

Jones dreamed of colleagues collaborating with peers within their disciplines all over the world. He gave everyone on campus an email address, whether they wanted it or not. Indeed, if you happened to send a message to someone at UNC who did not have a computer, Jones had that covered, too. He installed a printer in the campus mailroom and wrote a program that would generate a physical copy of any email that could not be received electronically — complete with address peeking through a glassine window — so that the message would be delivered by campus mail instead.

“It was a sick moment,” he said. “The lowest moment ever. And I confess here before you: I did do it. But email and I have fallen out of love. [It has become] a robot war. Nearly 90 percent of all email traffic is spam, asking to enlarge body parts you don’t even have, asking you to invest money that you don’t have in Nigeria, asking you to become friends with Ukrainian girls. It is the place for anything that you can possibly imagine that you don’t want, including Rolex watches, spelled many different ways.”

Of course, the email user instinctively understands this. Peeking in our spam folders is a test of both our puritan roots and the grammar rules we learned in first grade. Even managing the email messages we think we want and need can feel like a Greek tragedy, a modern twist on the tale of Prometheus: We are not chained to rocks for eternity, but to our inboxes, our messages repopulating faster than we can read, sort and delete them, killing our time over and over again.


But Jones’ breakup with email is about more than its betrayals — more than just the spam, and the “well-intentioned robots” of listservs and companies that send multiple notifications about your book purchase. It’s about more than just the inefficient ways we allow it to manage our lives, from tag-team editing a document via attachment, to asking 14 members of a church group to hit “reply all” as they attempt to settle on a mutually agreeable meeting time. (“They’re testing my Christian charity when they do that,” Jones says.)

No, for Jones, it is — as it always has been — about finding the new idea that’s better. Two years ago, he taught a freshman honors course and discovered that very few of the Morehead-Cain, Johnston and Carolina Scholars in the room routinely checked or used their email. Indeed, at least five of the 20 students in the room admitted they had given their passwords to their parents and asked them to manage their accounts. He quizzed other classes and got identical responses.

“When I asked them why, they said, ‘My friends all IM or text me; the only thing I get in my UNC email is bills.’ That kind of attitude is pervasive. I have a 19-year-old son who is spending the year in Serbia before he starts college, and I haven’t gotten email from him [in two years] — that’s before I even stopped using it. So, we’re onto something here.”

Roads not taken

Those who email Jones now receive an automated response listing 20 alternate ways to connect, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Skype, phone, text, IM and even YouTube. Since he abandoned the use of his account last summer, friends’ and colleagues’ responses have run the gamut, from those laden with exasperation and impossibility to poorly concealed jealousy.

To wit:

“I guess what I think is that, I use the email, so what the hell is he doing? I don’t exactly understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, and I don’t know that I’ll catch onto it.” (Longtime friend, former UNC political science professor and Chapel Hill psychotherapist Lou Lipsitz.)

“I’m too connected to email to get rid of it. Besides, I work for the U.N., which is not exactly the most cutting-edge sort of organization.” (Jim Fullton, a former Jones colleague and a senior counselor at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva.)

“Oh, God, email. Unfortunately, I’m still using it. I’d like to bury it. It’s a burden. You get 200, 300 messages a day. You can’t keep up. I go home at night and catch up on my email. You just get to work all day long and all night long with it, and you never get to stop.” (Judd Knott, information security manager at UNC, whose very name conjures the noose around the neck of time that is his email account.)

And then there was the high school pal of Jones, who, upon learning that he could no longer contact him by email, felt abandoned. “You used to be my friend,” he wrote to Jones. “Now we can’t talk.”

Jones is accustomed to drawing resistance; he’s always chased the rubber band’s snap, always stretched the edges of what makes us comfortable. He is no more discouraged by the response now than he was in the fifth grade, when he turned an assignment to write a fall poem into a condemnation of yard work: “Up to my knees in millions of leaves/And I stood in them and cursed like hell.”

“I got called by the teacher — you know: How dare I use that word,” Jones, 62, recalls. “And I went, ‘Well, I’m a Presbyterian. I hear it periodically.’ I had been reading, and stuff was in the air if you were an adventuresome reader. It didn’t seem that taboo. But I was made to apologize in front of the class — to the teacher, to the goody two-shoes who would turn on me if they thought my apology was insincere, and to my peers who would beat me up on the playground if they thought I was truly sorry.”


Ever the poet, Jones delivered a triple-register apology that satisfied all involved.

Poor speller, big thinker

The oldest of five and the son of a homebuilder who “never knew a minute’s separation between home life and work life,” Jones grew up in Charlotte under the spell of his own autonomy; he was open-source before open-source was cool. He pedaled his bike across Freedom Park and devoured classic novels that his grandmother, who lived part time with the Joneses, read with him. Anything by Mark Twain was a favorite. The two were close, and her influence was transformative. A portrait painter by trade, she sold her works to the Mint Museum in Charlotte, where she often took Jones. She also published poetry, when she wasn’t reciting late 19th- and early 20th-century verse to her grandson.

By the time he was in high school, Jones was regularly publishing his own poetry in the mimeographed underground newspaper he started with friends calledThe Inquisition. If not for the foreign language requirement that he couldn’t meet, he might have become an English major at UNC. Instead, as a math-and-science whiz, he enrolled at N.C. State — where he failed freshman English thanks to his poor spelling but graduated in 1972, a member of only the second class of State’s newly minted major, computer science.

Jones left his job managing the computerized operations of a Libbey-Owens-Ford glass factory in Toledo, Ohio, to work in the basement of Phillips Hall in 1977, as a systems programmer and technical manager for OIT (Office of Information Technology). Within a decade, he was transforming campus life, first with email and then with the unrelenting forward march of the Internet in our everyday lives.

From the beginning, Jones had set his sights on the future and was at one point threatened with demotion within his group for “trying to do this new Ethernet network communications thing instead of the mainframe,” recalls Judd Knott, who was hired as the head of OIT’s Academic Computing Services’ research and development group in 1988.

“Paul was being very innovative and pushing new technology, which got him into a lot of trouble,” Knott says. “But I admired it. I respected him for it. Rather than punishing him for it, I felt he should be rewarded. So I pulled him over to our group, and we went from there.”

Newly allied, Jones waded deep into the primordial ooze of the digital information era. By the early 1990s, UNC already had become a pioneer user of the early Internet and of wide-area information systems linking searchable databases, when Jones won a grant from software giant Sun Microsystems to host a site where the company could distribute free software for education and research.

But Jones saw in Sun’s request an opportunity to create something much more original and far-sweeping: a digital library in which contributors from all over the world could distribute information for free. Software, yes; but also books, articles, poems, research, an Elvis fan site, anything publicly available. In October 1992, Sun-SITE — now called ibiblio and still directed by Jones — was born.

The project spawned many firsts of the digital age, including the first streaming radio station, UNC’s WXYC, and the first digital presidential archive, with candidate and then President Bill Clinton. It was also the first digital archive to go live on the World Wide Web.

‘In the late ’70s, not only did I fall under the spell of email. I just thought it was the greatest thing on the planet.And it was. I made it my job to go around campus and tell people to use email.’

Indeed, as only the sixth website in history, SunSITE remains one of the longest-running sites on the Web. (The first site, Jones said, was a personal physics page at Stanford University’s Linear Accelerator Center that belonged to Howard “Bebo” White ’67.) It also was one of the early demo sites used by Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee while promoting his brainchild to the tech world.

IT service group members didn’t win grants from large corporations — it was unheard of, really — but such was the dawning age of the Internet, and such was Jones’ talent for walking headlong into the next big thing. That made him a commodity in the fields of journalism and library science, whose students would need more guidance than most disciplines in navigating a digital revolution that would dramatically disrupt the way they do business. Jones approached the deans of both schools, and in 1995 he was named a joint lecturer while he continued to direct the SunSITE laboratory.

Four years later, he was named clinical associate professor, a long way from the glass factory in which he began.

Bits and bytes, meter and rhyme

Jones’ best-known persona may be built on bits and bytes, but he still considers himself a poet first. For many years, beginning in the 1970s, he and fellow published poet Lip-sitz organized readings at the Carrboro Arts-Center, hosting and dining with such luminaries as Seamus Heaney and Robert Hass.

‘Computer science and poetry are exactly the same. It’s patterns and forms applied in some way for some sort of effect. And for me, it’s looking for parts and influences and then bringing them together in some new way.’

Poetry also introduced him to Sally Greene ’96 (PhD), now the associate director of the UNC Center for the Study of the American South.

Jones and Greene, a lawyer who had moved in 1987 to Chapel Hill from Washington, D.C., to enter the doctoral program in English, met in William Harmon’s modern British and American poetry course that year. She was a graduate student too timid to do anything but audit the class — Harmon was famously eccentric and renowned “for making graduate students cry,” as Jones put it. Jones was a basement-dwelling computer guy who took the class for credit, even though he was not a graduate student.

“Paul was able to talk in technical, detailed terms about the meter and rhyme, clearly from a passion, clearly from a deep understanding and love of poetry for its sake, as opposed to graduate students who were in there because they needed to get the course under their belts,” says Greene, who attended study sessions for a final exam she wouldn’t be taking, just to be in the same room with Jones.

A wry, cheeky humor is often Jones’ weapon of choice when dealing with the authorities in his life: Legend has it he once stuck his tongue out in disagreement at the former UNC chief information officer during a staff meeting.


That same style of temerity caught Greene’s attention in Harmon’s class. The professor had a habit of trailing off on tangents, sometimes brilliantly so; but Jones was not afraid to correct him or to steer him back on point when he began, say, an ode to hockey goalies. “[Harmon] and I would both laugh and move on,” Jones says, “but everyone else was terrorized because I had corrected him. But apparently it won Sally’s heart to some extent.”

They married in 1990, the same year Jones’ poetry,What the Welsh and Chinese Have in Common, won the North Carolina Poetry Chapbook Award.

In 1993, Greene gave birth to son Tucker, SunSITE continued its rise and Jones, never relinquishing his grandmother’s influence on his rich inner life, earned his MFA in poetry. Greene earned her doctorate three years later, which prompted a brief move to the University of Virginia in 1996. But UVA didn’t take; Greene realized Jones’ career was in Chapel Hill, and they returned — Jones to his old job as a lecturer and the director of SunSITE, and Greene for part-time legal research. (She would later serve two terms on the Chapel Hill Town Council, 2003-11, making affordable housing and the homeless the benchmarks of her tenure.)

Jones still writes and publishes his work — most recently as part of an anthology titled The Best American Erotic Poems: 1800-Present.

“Of course, my poem was neither American, erotic nor from the 1800s to the present,” he points out.

But the poem, a translated work from 14th-century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, does do something Jones has loved ever since that triple-register apology he made back in fifth grade: It takes an apparent curse poem about a body part and turns it into lines of praise. It takes something established, and makes it modern. It is a mashup on multiple levels. It is, as Judd Knott might say, a Paul Jonesism.

“Computer science and poetry are exactly the same,” Jones says. “It’s patterns and forms applied in some way for some sort of effect. And for me, it’s looking for parts and influences and then bringing them together in some new way. Or taking two opposing ideas and putting them together. It’s how streaming radio happened — we took a conferencing tool, put a radio signal in and turned it into a broadcasting medium.”

Jones has brought that remix theory to his classes as well, introducing a reading-and writing-free course to a group of journalism students. Instead of studying books or papers, they studied video presentations from global experts — TED talks, for example — and created video responses to them. Other times, Jones asked the students to share their thoughts using an online animation program called Xtranormal, which enables the user to create movies and assign dialogue to two or more cartoon figures.

“You get a different kind of critical thinking from them. They can write a five-paragraph essay; they were trained to do this, and they’re really good at it. But unless somebody bangs the box a little bit, shakes it up, they’re going to go to the same places intellectually. And a lot of them discover they have a tremendous facility for dialogue.”

Jones took the experiment a step farther and invited the experts to visit the class through the video conferencing tool Skype. They accepted in overwhelming numbers and with surprising results.

“The cool part was these guys would go online and look at all the kids’ video responses beforehand.” By the time the experts met the class via Skype, “they knew who each kid was. They’d seen their videos, their animations, and they recognized who they were talking to. It was not what I expected.”

Innovation or bust

Using video, animation and other alternatives to traditional methods of communication may have been new for Jones’ students inside the classroom, but in their social lives, it’s commonplace.

“Part of the inspiration for me in giving up email was to notice that my students were, in many cases, very happy to find me on IM or Facebook,” says Jones, who added that many students long ago gave up old-school tools like Microsoft Word for the more collaborative (and free) Google Docs. “And the other reason I gave it up was frustration, dissatisfaction. Humans are alive because we remember pain, not because we remember pleasure. I try to throw myself into the new thing, because the only way you innovate is to jump into the unknown pain and see how to experience it.

“For me, it’s about the great John Cage quote: ‘I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.’ ”

This summer, Jones will lead a SILS credit program in London, the planning for which presented the biggest challenge yet to his brave new no-email world — a glimpse into the logistical barriers that his detractors on the topic often note.

“They run the whole damn thing by email,” Jones says of the program, which will host students of varied ages — including the over-50 demographic who mostly don’t carry smartphones, let alone spend time on social networking sites, unless to connect with grandchildren or grown offspring. Jones hopes his proposal to set up a private Facebook group, where schedules and maps can be viewed and discussion can take place among participants, will provide the answer.

He figures that if his friend and no-email hero, Luis Suarez, can lead the charge on the corporate front, he can lead the charge on the academic. Three years ago, Suarez convinced his employer, a little company called IBM, that he could work remotely from his home in the Canary Islands by ditching corporate email for social networking platforms. Not only was he successful, but he lost 30 pounds walking around the island in the time he used to spend managing his email messages.

For Jones, that’s about as convincing as it gets — that, and the looming future of communication. A 2010 comScore study on digital trends showed a 59 percent decline in Web email use among 12- to 17-year-olds.

“There are better collaborative ways than email with a peer audience under 25,” Jones says, “and they’ll be increasingly effective and popular because the practice will tend to bubble up with them.”

But for all of his table-pounding expertise, not many people have jumped on Jones’ bandwagon. In fact, as you explain his premise to the people in your life, especially the people who always know which remote to use and which input to press, you will find that they will stop you midtale just to shake their heads and let you know, “I can’t ever see that happening.” They’ll call it a gimmick or something that only a university professor could get away with, and then they’ll list all the reasons why it won’t work for them. And you’ll see their point.

‘Humans are alive because we remember pain, not because we remember pleasure. I try to throw myself into the new thing, because the only way you innovate is to jump into the unknown pain and see how to experience it.’

But then you listen to a few of the dozens and dozens of smart, talented, tech-savvy people who have worked with or studied under Jones, and even as they tell you that they cannot give up email either, that there is no way out for them, they will caution that we should all remember a few of Jones’ greatest hits:

People resisted email when Jones first believed in it. Now we feel we can’t live without it.


Many people couldn’t understand why they would want to read or store information digitally when Jones started SunSITE. Now we rarely go a day without doing so.

And streaming entertainment to a personal computer? That was once science fiction, too. Hello, Hulu.

If no-email succeeds, it won’t be the first time Jones turned a curse poem into a praise poem.

“Oh, I know that people will eventually see his point on not using email,” Knott says.

“And it won’t be so far in the future when we see it happen.”

“I’m sure that email will be a fading trend from now on,” adds Jim Fullton, “and that Paul will still be out in front of all of us, like he always is.”

So maybe the solution to put email out of business is not there for everyone, not yet. But if anybody can find a way to shut down the Nigerian banks, send away the sketchy pharmaceuticals and put the phony Rolex salesmen back on the city streets where they belong, it’s Paul Jones. Don’t bet against him. It may take a geek poet to do it, but Prometheus may yet be rescued from his rock.

Copyright 2012 UNC General Alumni Association

From the May/June issue of the Carolina Alumni Review