Remembering Email

Posted by Chris Rosser on Sun 21 May 2017
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There was a time in my life when email was important to me. When I was growing up, letter writing was something my mother encouraged as means of keeping in touch with my family in the UK. The problem for me was I hated the act of writing with pens and paper. It's slow, inefficient and my handwriting has always been terrible.

When we got our first family computer in 1995, suddenly I had the ability to type letters but it wasn't until I started university that I got my first email address and the excuse to use it.

Over the next few years, more and more of my friends and loved ones started using and relying upon email. The year I started university, 1998, was the year email went mainstream. Hotmail was founded in 1996, Yahoo Mail the year after. The film You've Got Mail (1998), was released right when technology was moving from the preserve of the technorati to become the social mechanism to bring people together.

You've got mail
You've got mail

Photo credit: The Movie DB

Of course, we had SMS text messaging, but that was expensive by comparison and limited by the number characters you could send. It was a pain to compose on those primitive Nokia phones with their push-button keypads.

Writing email was something I enjoyed. Here was something that was technologically better while retaining the same basic metaphors that's we've used for centuries. Email itself was old by then, at least in technology terms. It predated the web by several decades and for a long time (again in technology terms) was the common denominator of the internet.

That started to change in the early years of the century. Email took off in the work place; email became the way you received receipts from Amazon and Paypal and the legion of services that followed in their wake.

Whereas texting was the tool of friends and lovers, email began to feel like work. An entire professional culture grew around email as the defacto means of business communication. Along with it came the chronic rise of spam, scams and malware.

This difference was compounded with the rise of social media and rapid uptake by my friends and quite a few of my family. Early entrants, Facebook and Twitter offered an even easier approach to communicate with status updates and instant messaging. After all, email was still technical. Webmail services made things easier but configuring mail clients with POP3 or IMAP is something that many non-technical users find very onerous.

Email began to look old and tired. Our email addresses have become more important as gateways to services and the means to identify ourselves than the actual email itself.

Still, I persisted with email because I liked it, because I liked emailing people for same the reasons my mother liked writing letters on paper notepads. Anyone can shoot off an instant message but crafting an email takes time and thought. Sure, I've shot off some dumb emails in my time, but that was a failing of mine, not the technology nor the medium.

I realised when I was drafting my tools page, that at some point, email stopped being important to me. Not because I didn't enjoy the crafting of email but because fewer and fewer people wrote back.

Things change. Maybe in 5 years I'll be asking where instant messages went and why all I get is pictures of people plastered with stickers and emoji 😀

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