The first email I ever received was a letter from outer space. My father sent it from Israel, probably in 1987; someone else had to print it out and deliver it to my mother. But it was special because it came from outer space. The message itself was an update on his trip with a paragraph devoted to explaining the new technology. I remembered wondering if I’d ever get another email.
Nearly three decades later, I find myself wondering again if the email I just received will be my last.
What was once the backbone of Internet communication — and there’s a good case to be made that communication is the backbone of the Internet itself — has less and less use in our daily life. It’s been functionally replaced by messaging, chat, and DMs, effaced by social media, and perhaps most importantly, withered away as what we want to say and how we want to say it have changed over time.
What made email immediately useful in daily life was the sheer speed of it. You didn’t have to wait three to four days to see expressed in writing what, for whatever reason, couldn’t be put into words on the telephone. Writing was different from speaking and our ability to employ it was no longer limited.
The faster the Internet got, the more emails we wrote. It was a golden age for those of us prone to long, weighty missives, especially those of us with literary aspirations who knew that these could very well be published posthumously.
But email wasn’t just becoming a proxy for letter-writing. It was also taking the place of the telephone. We unlearned how to use the phone well before we forgot how to write. I realize how quaint that sentence sounds. Still, in those few years before cell phones became widespread — and I’d argue that using cell phones for talking was just a transitional phase in technology — we began using email to avoid having to make voice-on-voice contact. It was sometimes a matter of convenience, sometimes avoidance. But email was an effective, efficient buffer against our oldest (and most forthright) form of communication. It introduced distance even as it upped the tempo and immediacy of daily life.
It’s always been curious to me that real-time messaging has been a part of the tech landscape for nearly as long as email (think AOL) and yet it took at least twenty years for messaging in its various forms to outmode email. Today, email is used primarily when some level of formality, professional or otherwise, is required. Even then, they’re often used either to begin or end a conversation. It’s perfectly acceptable to never reply because they’re meant to linger as a broad statement. The sole exception that comes to mind is task-oriented exchanges like going back and forth over an edit. Even then, email’s grasp on the situation is tenuous; I now use Google docs as much as I do Word.
Why has messaging replaced email?
My best guess is that it has a lot to do with the rise of social media and the ways in which conversation has taken precedence over simple utterance. The web has gone from a mere repository of content — and a conduit for its transmission — to a thing that, on the most basic level, is premised on interaction.
We don’t want to launch things out into the void and wait for a response, we want immediate engagement.
Messaging is only slightly faster than email but it lends itself far better to the Internet of now. Platforms that visualize everything as real-time exchange simply feel more like a two-way street. Chatting has proven more timeless and mutable than self-consciously writing, even if the language and overall mode of expression has changed over time — and IRL conversation has completely retreated from view, to the point where texting while talking is almost socially acceptable.
But it’s not just how we want to communicate that’s changed, it’s what we want to say. We simply no longer feel the need to “go long” or expand our thoughts that far past 140 characters. Granted, Twitter no longer enforces that limit on DM’s, but long DM’s just look and feel wrong. Facebook posts over 250 words qualify as a “rant”. And we’ve all had the experience of typing so much in a chat window that the other party’s name disappears, at which point the conversation might as well be over. We probably have more to say than ever — in the same way that we consume more Internet than ever — but it’s always in rapid bursts.
Maybe it’s to leave room for others; maybe it speaks to a lack of focus. Either way, the pace and tone of online life has turned email into a dinosaur. It’s cold and even rude to send an email, unless you’ve got no real precedent or pretext for reaching out via some other, more conversational means.
The rise of emojis more or less ended the debate over whether messaging killed writing as we know it; at this point, there’s an entirely different language being spoken. Email had that vestigial link to letter-writing which is to say, email was where writing was ruined, not the means by which writing would evolve into something new.
If email is going to be with us for much longer, it’s ironically going to be because of this connection to the past. It will stick around in the same way that the fax machine — the ultimate liminal technology — has yet to fully bow out of daily life. The formality of email is what keeps it alive.
And as long as society demands we officially introduce ourselves before asking for something or offering up something, we’ll need email. As long as individuals are allowed to set the context for interaction rather than jumping blindly into it, email will be around. And when we need to clearly and expansively lay out an idea without immediately inviting the input of others, email is there for us. If anything, email still survives because it protects us from interaction. It slows things down and forestalls online life. That’s almost the opposite of when it facilitated functions of IRL.
Maybe it’s not long before were all writing letters again.