The death of email

A few weeks ago, I read a report that Ray Tomlinson, the man credited with the invention of email as we know it, as well as the @ symbol, died at the age of 74. It gave me pause to think about the impact that email has had on our lives and our work. While the great man is dead, is email also about to shake off its mortal coil any time soon?

Mark Twain was famously reported to say “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” in relation to some confusion regarding his gravely ill cousin.  I often have clients ask me if email is dead, or at least, dying. There is much discussion on the interwebs about the impending death of email, and about it being replaced by other, more suitable collaboration tools.

Well, in my opinion, the inventor might be dead, but his legacy lives on and will do so for some time in the corporate workplace. But is that really such a bad thing? I am not sure. I believe email to be a fantastic communication tool. It is we, the emailer, that use it poorly and in the wrong situations. When it does finally get replaced by some other tool, I guarantee we will sabotage that as well, and use it in turn poorly and in the wrong situations!

If you think about all of the frustrations we have about email, they are caused by our own behaviours.

  • Email was designed to be an asynchronous tool. I send it now and you deal with it in your time. But we have subverted this and made it a synchronous tool. I send it now and call you in 5 minutes if you have not responded!
  • I don’t think Ray ever envisioned that we would get more than twenty emails per day. Yet some of my clients are getting 300-400 per day.
  • Maybe Mr Tomlinson thought that email would reduce noise levels as we could quietly tap away at our keyboards and send a communication without distracting anyone. But maybe he did not foresee the amount of noise generated each day by our colleagues and sent into our inboxes.
  • I am sure the big man never thought that most workers would end up with an additional part-time job managing, filing and searching for this email information he enabled. Yet many of us spend way too much time trying to wrestle with our mailboxes and filing systems.
  • Did he ever imagine that most people would end up using their inbox as their priority management system? I don’t believe so. That would be crazy!

Ray did not invent email with these issues in mind. Like climate change these issues are man-made. While there are some sceptics that might refute that climate change exists, I reckon no-one could refute the issues that we have created with email.

So take a moment to reflect on what this great man has achieved, and make a promise to yourself to honour his memory by using email a little more wisely.

What could you do this week to change the way you use email?

Posted on April 4, 2016 .