Maybe you heard the news. Email is dead. Social networking is the future. Email doesn’t have any fun games popping off the dashboard and email is too private for office culture anymore; the office of the future, didn’t you know, will communicate with something Facebook-like, tailored just for your company. You’ll circulate memos the same way you circulate status updates. The boss will address everyone by posting a video. And you’ll meet face-to-face on some internal Skype-like client. And I’m not kidding.
To commemorate the life and times of email, here’s a history of email told backwards:
- 2025 – In a fit of nostalgia, Google+ offers a retro theme that makes your social network experience look like gmail.
- 2020 – Your old boss decides to do performance reviews across the company social network instead of in person or via email, and mistakenly posts all of them publicly on the recipient’s timeline.
- 2010 – I leave my cell phone at home but luckily figure out how to send texts through email.
- 2005 – Email spam hits a critical mass in the sense that we all start cracking jokes about Nigerian businessmen.
- 2004 – Google invents email.
- 2000 – College students embrace Instant Messaging en masse so that they can avoid their parents who just recently got the hang of using email.
- 1994 – Email spam hits a critical mass in the sense that the number of chain letters and advertisements in my mailbox, (2), exceeds the number of real messages, (0), for the first time. This is because none of my friends use e-mail yet because they are children and it is 1994.
- 1980s – Email begins its ascent as an internal communications tool within all the hippest corporations.
- 1982 – SMTP standards are written, effectively establishing email as we know it today.
- 1970s – Mail servers being uncommon, most emails require both sender and receiver to be online at the same time. Also, slow connection speeds demand that messages be short. In an ironic twist, email resembles instant messaging.
- 1969 – Man lands on the moon decades before the first cat videos start bouncing off of it.
- 1952 – Hoping to speed up the transmission of text across the proto-Internet, PhD student David Hufman upstages the faculty at MIT and figures out how to compress data, eventually enabling broader use of email, as well as any future technology that might want to use data compression, (ie all of them). Thanks email!
- 1930s-80s – Teleprinters see wide use in Germany and eventually the world, enabling the business class to text each other about football scores.
- 1939 – IBM sends an email from San Francisco to the World’s Fair in New York, claiming that “electronic messages of this sort will be a high speed substitute for mail service in the world of tomorrow.” 1939. Good job, IBM.
- 1912 – The RMS Titanic sends an email to everyone in its contact list, but is prudently ignored because sending a message to your entire contact list is a good indication that your account has been hacked.
- 1800s – British postal service is so attentive at one point that Londoners enjoy morning, midday and evening mail service. Being able to send messages in the morning and receive replies by that same evening is seen as a modern luxury, but curmudgeonly advocates of Yelling Things Out The Window refuse to embrace the technology because it limits you to only three status updates per day.
- 1836 – Samuel Morse invents email.
- Renaissance – Despite the lack of connectivity with other users, overeducated hipsters find the new Diary social network to be adequate for complaining about their coffee.
- 1440 – Johannes Gutenberg invents spam.
- Late 13th Century – Kublai Kahn discovers that Japan has invented spam filters.
E-mail-as-we-know-it might be about to suffer a downturn, but this obviously does not mean we are done sending written text to each other – that practice is old as dirt. If one wants to “make sense” of all our post-email ways of communicating, the unifying theme might be that we are simply enjoying new interfaces and contexts for doing what we’ve done all along: writing for the sake of others.