I remember distinctly when I got my very first email address. It was a mid-nineties summer in Germany and I finally got my hands on a modem. That was a big deal, as it required me sending a cashier’s check via mail to a business that I didn’t know, wait for seven or eight weeks with no status update to receive a no-name modem with at best spotty documentation. After dabbling in local BBSes and QWK readers, I signed up for a BBS that was connected to Fidonet which meant that my online community was no longer restricted to the local area code. Fidonet provided access to a global network of nodes that replicated messages with each other via dial up. Because of dial up messages were replicated between nodes only a few times per day. Therefore it could take days for messages to travel from sender to recipient, but this was a global network.
Part of that deal was an email address. Admittedly, one that took days to deliver, but one that allowed me to communicate with people on the other side of the world without long distance calls. That left an immense impression on me and I remember going outside to tell the great news to my father who was working in the garden. After all it was summer. I told him about how it was all connected and that I could send emails to people in places like America. He just looked at me, baffled, and just commented that I didn’t know anybody in the US. He was right, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that my English was broken or that my email address was a lengthy and random assortment or letters and numbers. What mattered was the possibility.
While I didn’t know any Americans, Australians or even Austrians at that time, email allowed me to change that. Email established itself as the lowest common denominator and as such allowed me to reach out to people, stay in touch with friends and current and former work colleagues, independent of country, company, operating system, device or phone carrier.
That’s now more than a quarter of a century ago. There are still a lot of things that I appreciate very much about email:
- Email addresses have proven to be durable. After the first wave of Hotmail and Yahoo addresses, people (at least in my generation) have settled on one main email address that has been stable over the last ten or so years. The fact that a lot of services use the email address as the unique identifier for logging in just underscores this kind of perseverance.
- Email is permission-less. As soon as I have somebody’s address, I can reach out to that person. There are a lot of downsides to this approach, most notably spam and harassment that are real and that I don’t want to downplay. But the fact that I don’t need to be part of a specific network to be able to connect with somebody still seems wonderfully egalitarian to me.
- Email has little friction through authentication. So much information these days is hidden behind paywalls, which are notorious for erring on the side of false negatives. As soon as a cookie is not ad-related it seems to expire much faster leading to unnerving extra authentication hoops to jump through. I get a lot of my news and analysis via email, which removes that friction. The information just comes to me.
- Email creates a searchable repository. Randy Pausch once said that email storage is basically free (so much goodness in his time management presentation, this tidbit is slide 87). The day I realized that was the last day I deleted email. And its rich meta information allows for powerful search, filters and sorting. Over the years I’ve given up on folders and labels and mostly rely on search. It works. There is always something about an email that I remember, be it a date, the sender, a list of recipients, … that all can be used as part of the search criteria.
- Email clients are mature. While there are every now and then slightly new approaches to email clients, the problem seems mostly solved. Most email clients provide sufficient features and good enough keyboard support to be able to manage email swiftly and with little mental overhead.
- Emails are inherently asynchronous. Everybody can deal with email at their own pace. For some it means that they reply to most emails within 5 minutes, others try to comply with the 24-hour rule, others just … don’t. And that is fine. The fact that there are no “the other person is typing” indicator, slows things down enough to allow for thoughtful replies.
These are only a few of the things I appreciate about email. It is easy to hate on email these days and get broad support. It has lots of downsides, most notably that it can feel at times overwhelming. Email has been declared dead many times and a lot of systems are chipping away on its value proposition. As with most things, it is just a tool. But it has proven to be simple, reliable and durable enough to survive the last five decades and probably a few more.
One last thought: As mentioned above, I’m originally from Germany. Over time I’ve had the privilege to live in the UK, Australia and now in the US. And every single time it started with me reaching out to somebody that I didn’t know with an email. Only email can do that.