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Email communication continues to thrive 50 years after invention

This year, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of an ubiquitous, resourceful, yet frustrating invention that has become an important part of our lives: Email.

It is widely acknowledged that Ray Tomlinson invented the first electronic messaging system in 1971. Though they have evolved quite a bit since then, it is difficult to imagine that emails have been around for half a century. I got my first email account rather late — in the 1990s. As a generation, we thought we were experiencing the thrills of modern technology (Of course, not so modern, in retrospect). We thought it was something new and exciting. But, little did I know back then that emails — like most inventions — could become problematic, if not managed and used wisely.

Perhaps, this explains why, despite 50 years having passed, people like me are still writing about ‘email etiquette’, the ‘do’s and don’ts of email communication’, ‘increasing productivity through emails’, and so on. Among the countless books that have appeared, a recent one that captured my attention was Cal Newport’s A World Without Email. I’m yet to read it, but the title provoked and teased me. What if emails were to disappear from our world? Would we miss them? Have we already found better alternatives?

Some say emails are going to be around for a long time. Though new tools and innovative email management mechanisms have emerged, we will still be expected to have email addresses. Then, there are others who prefer messaging and intuitive meeting applications, slowly abandoning their email avatars.

A love-hate relationship

However, I’m all for emails, despite my love-hate relationship with them. Before I tell you why I ‘hate’ them at times, let me tell you what I like about emails: Though I use several other mechanisms to organise, delegate or manage tasks at work, I know I’m going to be using emails for a while longer because there’s a certain authenticity about writing emails. I think I would want to retain the luxury of writing letters — albeit electronically — and retain some element of humanity and personalisation in my communication, rather than replacing it with texting applications. Of course, nothing can replace in-person or video-based communication, but an email allows us to elaborate much more than a messaging app.

Despite these advantages, there are days emails tire me beyond belief. Just a few days ago, I was stumped when I realised I hardly had any space left in my email folders. I had only myself to blame because, over the last few years, I had allowed my emails to accumulate till they turned into an overwhelming and rowdy bunch. Instead, all I should have done over the years was to have adopted a read-act-delete/archive strategy.

1. Read the emails at a dedicated time every day

2. Act on them if the expected action was quick and required little deliberation

3. Once done, either delete the said email or archive into a designated folder, if it was important.

So, there I was sitting and going over emails, deleting hundreds of them, wasting precious time. It was a good lesson in organising skills. As long as organisations depend on email as the primary mode of formal communication; as long as the world continues to use authorised emails as proof or as legal documentation, this mode of communication will be around.

Of course, organising isn’t the only skill to master when it comes to email. Using crisp, specific subject lines (that clearly spell out the topic of the message), avoiding typos, using the right greeting/salutation… all the classic elements of professional email etiquette are important too. In my view, it’s just the right thing to do.

The last 50 years have seen alarming and amazing developments in the way we communicate. While we await the next big thing after Tomlinson’s creation, while we continue to email each other, perhaps the 50th anniversary of electronic mail can be a great occasion to make it work for us — and not the other way around.

The author is a writer and literary journalist. She also heads Corporate Communications at UST. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @anupamaraju

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 7:46:38 PM |

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