By Reba Condiotti
“Email is dead,” remarked Mark Zuckerberg in November 2010 (Singal 2010). But is it? And if it isn’t, do you ever wish it were? Many of us have ambivalent feelings about email: On the one hand, opening our inboxes is one of the first rituals we perform upon getting out of bed in the morning; we are all too curious about who sent us mail as we slept. On the other hand, we are frustrated with the amount of emails that we receive from marketing companies and we are annoyed with precious time wasted rescuing important correspondence from our spam folder. According to Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic and author of an in-depth article on email’s demise, email does what it is supposed to do, and has even improved with time, “but people seem to hate it more than ever” (LaFrance 2016).
Why do we love email and why do we hate it? Do the advantages of email outweigh its disadvantages? Moreover, has email become passé in our world of online chats and text messaging? And if email really is on its way out, what technologies will take its place?
The idea of sending messages via a computer began in 1965 at MIT. A program called Mailbox allowed people to leave messages for others who worked on the same computer. However, it was useless for communication between computers. In 1969, the United States Department of Defense built ARPANET or Applied Research Projects Agency Network, a system that allowed communication between several computers. This was the precursor of electronic mail (Phrasee 2020). Yet, the first personal electronic letter was only sent in 1971 by Raymond Tomlinson, a computer engineer. “He can’t remember what it said but people keep asking him anyway” (LaFrance 2016). Tomlinson and his colleagues spent hours discussing how email should look and how it should work. After many complicated ideas were rejected, Tomlinson and his coworkers came up with something simple: recipients would check their inbox by typing the command, <type mailbox>. The message was not visible on a computer screen; rather, it was printed out on continuous-feed computer paper at a rate of 10 characters per second. An altogether different program was needed to compose and send correspondence.
Email: A Brief History
By the end of the 1970’s, email resembled today’s email format. However, decades passed before people began buying personal computers en masse and email started being used universally. By 1995, 36% of Americans owned computers and 12 million subscribed to a snail’s pace dial-up Internet connection service (Perenson 1995). Within a couple of years, email caught on and by the end of the 1990’s, if you did not have an email address, it marked you as someone who was probably over 40 years old.
Eventually, millions of people bought Internet connection for the sole purpose of reading their emails. According to some sources, 2.7 billion people used email in 2017 (Schofield 2017) whereas today, in 2020, over 300 billion emails are sent per day by 4 billion users (Lynkova 2020). Although many sources claim that email volume is growing, its share of overall electronic communication is decreasing (LaFrance 2016). According to the research company, ComScore, the number of Americans using major email sites such as Yahoo and Hotmail has declined since November 2009. This overall decrease is not a reflection of less digital communication; rather, people are increasingly using instant messaging, texting, and Facebook (Richtel 2010).
Remember the Postal Service?
Years ago, prior to the invention of email, we corresponded by sending mail through the postal system. In the past few decades, the government-operated mail system (fondly referred to as “snail mail”) has become inefficient: it is slow, letters get lost, and postal workers tend to go on strike while you wait impatiently for that crucial document to arrive. As recently as the 1990’s, overworked and underpaid United States mail deliverers caused havoc by stuffing full mail sacks of undelivered letters in attics and cellars where they were found 10 years later (Stein 1994). Fortunately, email has, for the most part, replaced the postal service.
The Benefits and Burdens of Email
The list of advantages and disadvantages of email is long and cumbersome. One person might like the more formal letter layout of email whereas another person might feel that the email format is old-fashioned. In reality, email gives a writer the choice of penning a long, heartfelt love letter or jotting down a quick note.
Email accounts are wonderful for storing forgotten passwords, pumpkin pie recipes, family photos, and jokes. Bank statements, salary slips, and receipts of paid bills are conveniently dropped into your inbox. For those concerned with the environment, keeping records on email saves paper by eliminating hard copy printouts (Schofield 2017).
Experts agree that one of email’s greatest advantages is that, unlike Facebook, it is not owned by anyone. Any person can easily set up an email account and be able use it to communicate with any other email service without paying a fee; all email programs are compatible with each other (Schofield 2017, Ziv 2019). “Email is the last great unowned technology,” remarked the Harvard law professor, Jonathan Zittrain “…and by unowned, I mean there is no CEO of email… it’s just a shared hallucination that works” (LaFrance 2016). Because email addresses are easy to obtain, it has become the great equalizer: “If you have a person’s email address, your message will be delivered no matter who you are — whether the recipient is your oldest friend, your granddaughter, your boss’s boss, or Beyoncé” (LaFrance 2016).
One of email’s triumphs, the quality that made it truly revolutionary, is that a letter is delivered even when no one is there to receive it. It just sits in your inbox until you are ready to open it (LaFrance 2016). Emails can be kept for future reference, forwarded to others, or printed out (Schofield 2017). Also, as opposed to other forms of electronic communication, in the present version of email, the sender does not know if the recipient has read the message. Some feel that this is an advantage, lessening the pressure of the recipient to answer immediately. However, this does sometimes lead to the annoying habit of impatient senders texting or calling the receiver to inform them that an email has been sent.
Research has shown that frequently checking emails leads to anxiety (LaFrance 2016). One study found that people who constantly check their emails produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress (Villarica 2012). Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine, observed that white-collar workers check their inboxes, on average, 77 times every day. She demonstrated that the more time people spend checking and reading their emails, the less happy and productive they are (LaFrance 2016).
Part of the psychological toll that email takes is due to our lack of control of the type of mail that arrives in our inbox. Up to 80% of the emails we receive do not come from a human being, claims Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack, a new intra-office communications system; it is spam mail, a receipt from an Amazon purchase, someone following us on LinkedIn, or marketing newsletters (LaFrance 2016). One of our worst fears comes from the knowledge that criminals can send us an email containing malware (Schofield 2017) – something else that is out of our control.
Maybe the like or dislike of email is a generational phenomenon. Young people claim that email involves a long, boring process of signing into an account, adding a subject line, and then sending a message that will not be read immediately. “And sign-offs like ‘sincerely’ – seriously?” (Richtel 2010). “Email was invented 50 years ago and it still looks like you’ve sent a letter to the queen of England…,” says Adam Horowitz, a technology consultant for a major accounting firm in New York. “But when it comes to young users, they don’t know much about emails. The first time they encounter this kind of email is in college or their first job” (Ziv 2019). Teenagers prefer using text messaging and chat platforms like Snapchat and Instagram (Lafrance 2016). This may spell doom for email as these same teens segue into adulthood.
New Technologies on the Horizon
If Mark Zuckerberg’s predictions of doom for email are correct, what will take its place? Corporate executives are already pushing for “inbox zero” within their companies. For communication between employees, they prefer their workers use intra-office communication packages such as Teams, offered by Microsoft. The Teams website explains their platform as follows:
Invite everyone you work with to chat, meet, call, and collaborate all in one place, no matter where you are (Microsoft 2020: teams).
Slack is another up-and-coming real-time messaging platform made for business communications. “The idea behind Slack is that, when you’re addressing the same core group of people via email all the time anyway, you might as well have a shared digital space so that people can dip in and out of the conversation as needed” (LaFrance 2016). But these platforms are only useful for intra-company communication. “Even if an organization uses instant messaging internally, when it’s communicating with outsiders, it uses email” (Ziv 2019).
Might Email Retain Our Ability to Think Deeply?
If all communication is boiled down to bite-sized, phone-based messages, does this spell the end of thoughtful communication between people? Is this the sign that there is no future for forms of communication that encourage its writers to think deeply about what they want to say, and how they want to say it (Singal 2010)? Judy Kallos, who writes a blog and books about e-mail etiquette, complains that “the looser, briefer and less grammatical the writing, the less deep the thoughts and emotions behind it.” She claims that,” ‘We’re going down a road where we’re losing our skills to communicate with the written word’” (Richtel 2010). Email, as opposed to text messages and chats, might allow us the opportunity to retain deeper and more meaningful thought processes, as we communicate our ideas and opinions to others.
“Email is dead,’’ insisted Mark Zuckerberg as he introduced a new feature in Facebook that will combine email, instant messaging, and text messages into one stream (Singal 2010). However, not everyone agrees. “… email is here to stay,” says Dvir Ben-Aroya, the CEO of the Israeli startup Spike. “In the digital world, we all have two identities – our telephone number and our email” (Ziv 2019).
Whether we love it or hate it, when email eventually dies, it is bound for a slow and painful death.
LaFrance, Adrienne. “The Triumph of e mail: Why does one of the world’s most reviled technologies keep winning?” The Atlantic, January 6, 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/01/what-comes-after-email/422625/
Lynkova, Darina. “The Surprising Reality of How Many Emails are Sent per Day.” Tech Jury, June 1, 2020. https://techjury.net/stats-about/how-many-emails-are-sent-per-day/#gref
Microsoft 2020: teams. https://www.microsoft.com/en/microsoft-365/microsoft-teams/group-chat-software
Perenson, Melissa. “Americans Reveal On-line Habits”. PC Magazine, December 19,1995. https://books.google.co.il/books?id=zZluSj3AT6YC&pg=PA32&lpg=PA32&dq=what+percentage+of+people+owned+computers+in+America+in+1995&source=bl&ots=eAHZ3RBFLz&sig=ACfU3U1KiqepmisUlva 92jEZkqUxYObZA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjsusqMg4LqAhVyTxUIHYtKBhsQ6AEwD3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
Phrasee 2020. https://phrasee.co/a-brief-history-of-email/
Richtel, Matt. “Email gets an instant makeover.” New York Times, December 20, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/21/technology/21email.html
Schofield, Jack. “Is there a replacement for email?.” The Guardian, February 16, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/askjack/2017/feb/16/is-there-a-replacement-for-email
Singal, Jesse. “The death of email as we know it? Not so fast.” Boston Globe, December 26, 2010. http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2010/12/26/the_death_of_email_as_we_know_it_not_so_fast/
Stein, Sharman. “Chicago’s Mail Woes Built Letter at a Time.” The Chicago Tribune, May 20, 1994. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1994-05-20-9405200179-story.html
Villarica, Hans. “Study of the Day: Email Breaks at Work Reduce Stress, Improve Productivity.” The Atlantic, May 9, 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/05/study-of-the-day-email-breaks-at-work-reduce-stress-improve-productivity/256796/
Ziv, Amitai. “The Israeli startup that puts some zip into stodgy old email.” Haaretz, August 21, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/business/the-israeli-startup-that-puts-some-zip-into-stodgy-old-email-1.7725764