An aspect of digital media that has changed drastically as a result of emerging technology is email usage. For those of us who think email didn’t start until AOL made it popular, the truth is that the first email message was sent in October of 1971. It was sent by Ray Tomlinson who inserted the “@” sign which now seems essential to everyday life to separate the user from the computer name. This technology triggered the creation of a form of communication still heavily relied upon today.
“Ray Tomlinson is quoted as saying he invented email,’Mostly because it seemed like a neat idea.’ No one was asking for email.” [Retrieved via http://inventors.about.com/od/estartinventions/a/email.htm]
There was very little you could do with email at the inception because very few people had an “email” account. Even in the 1990s, public consumption of email was largely limited to educational institutions. Most students were assigned an edu campus email address but had to go to the computer lab to try and figure out what to do with their “email” account.
By the mid-1990s, those same college graduates may have purchased AOL accounts, but most of their family and friends had neither a home computer nor an email account. This is arguably when email usage as communication reached its peak of inflated expectations. The possibilities of the communication form were within sight but not attainable.
Over the next few years, innovations such as AOL Instant Messanger created whispers that email would soon be extinct. The ease and evolution of mobile texting also put a dent in email usage. To an extent, the new innovations in messaging left some in a trough of disillusionment. Instant messaging could ping people at their desk and tell the sender if the recipient was online and/or had read the message. Standard email accounts did not offer the same form of instant gratification.
As social networking sites exploded as a popular form of digital communication, the outlook for email’s existence looked more bleak. Why email your friends when you could message them inside MySpace? New messaging sites, online discussion forums and the inception of mobile texting only added fuel to the “email is dead” fire.
What the email doomsayers did not realize is that as social networks went bankrupt or were abandoned, people lost track of one another. They lost their followers, their fans, and their virtual friends when sites closed up shop. The other piece of the equation that was overlooked is the convenience of emailing information over texting. People find typing on a keypad more efficient than typing out a long message with one finger. Also, information is found, stored and searched much easier via email than texting. The stability of email and the friendly familiar user experience created a slope of enlightenment for the digital media.
While the functionality of email has changed very little over the past 40 plus years, it remains a staple in communication. It has arguably hit a plateau of productivity, and it may never do very much more than it does today.
In the work world, internal communication messaging services like Skype and even shared documents via apps like Evernote may have more functionality than email, but the two seem to coexist and compliment one another. An employee may update the shared Evernote, then send out an email alert to the team that says, “I added some new ideas to Evernote. Check them out.”
Just last year, on March 11, 2015, Farhad Manjoo wrote an article for The New York Times titled, “Slack, the Office Messaging App That May Finally Sink Email.” And despite all of its adopters, (as of May, 2016 Slack is reported to have 3 Million DAU), email still lives.