The death of email….please


When I first started in this industry in 1991 having an email address was a window to the future.  As a temp at Microsoft I had a dumb terminal with Xenix Email.  I would sit there and wait for my emails to come — which usually came from the person about two cubicles down.  But it was thrilling when they came.  Maybe I had a secret admirer? Ok if I did she may be three or four cubicles down but it was a new world and I new way to communicate.

Later when I got hired on at Microsoft I got a new email account that would last for the next 18 years, hansh and later hansh@microsoft.com.  Remember at this time there was  no internet, all emails were internal, but it was still a brave new world.  The big move was to our mail server MS Mail v3.1 with a graphical client.  I know this seems rather dweebish and not terribly exciting.  At the time I could probably say among friends I was the only one who had a corporate email account.  MS Mail was great compared to my old Xenix email.  It had spell check and a global address list.   It was slow compared to todays world.  When you went on vacation and came back you had to download all your email you missed and that took 2 hours.  You could go talk to your co-workers about your great vacation.  I would say at this point I still liked it.

Several events swayed my love.  The growth of Microsoft as a company was one.  Over the years people would make careers writing massive emails to their org, their department, their division, frankly whomever would be “required” to listen and read all these emails of corporate drivel, they were in some cases painful.  I know a lot of these emails were well thought out, professional and full of worthwhile content.  However as time went on it was like an avalanche of information.  Most emails were so long that you could not take or find the time to read them all.  I cannot count the times I would let an email sit in my inbox thinking I need to read this only to a month later as I cleaned out my inbox simply delete the email.  The good side was there were training companies that offered courses on how to manage your corporate email.

An event that went almost unnoticed was the rise of mobile phones and in particular what Nokia did with the mobile phone, namely being the prime mover of SMS or simply put text messaging.  Up until text messaging the mobile phone was simply a phone that allowed you to call anywhere.    But Nokia realized you have a device that had a user interface and you could do things with that interface.  Such as type messages.  It remains largely the same today but has grown into quite an industry.  In 2008 there were over 1 trillion text messages sent worldwide.  In my view services like Twitter owe everything to SMS.

The second big event that occurred was the internet.  Now customers could email and interact with me directly.  This became a real bummer.  In addition to this now everyone could get a personal email account because the internet was “hip” and everyone needed an identity, frankly I needed more email.  Now instead of managing just my corporate email I can now manage my own personal account.  How much time do I spend each day checking and deleting email?  Way too much.  It is a nightmare.  The internet though would have benefits and as time moved on the group know as the First globalists by John Zogby would start to reject the horror that my generation started.  Enter Social Networking.

Social Networking as is so often the case in the tech industry did not start with todays current leader, Facebook.  The original was MySpace.  But despite the early success things quickly changed and before you knew it they were yesterday’s news.  In today’s world we have the phenomena of Facebook and then Twitter.  What is interesting is what occurs on these sites is a new form of communication with far less structures and far less ridiculed than traditional email.  I recently saw Obama Campaign manager David Plouffe speak and he even mentioned on the campaign as they worked hard to reach out to younger voters that they had to avoid traditional email as the primary communication mechanism since younger voters communicated via Text messaging, Facebook, and Twitter.  As he put it his views on new media communications were old.

All I can say to this new generation is amen.  I think we have reached a space in corporate america (my background) where email is actually counter productive.  I cannot count the countless  and numbing hours spent reading marketing emails, emails from co-workers, the countless fire drills spurred on by these emails, some because of their content and some because I simply either did not read or just plain missed them.  Some days I felt like my job was simply cleaning out my inbox and hitting the delete button five hundred times.

With the new trend of commmunciating via video conference I see a helpful trend where we will get back to more face-face communications.  Structured emails rarely reveal the talent of intent of the individual behind them.  There is a lot to be said about reading people s facial expressions.  But maybe more importantly is the civility of it all.  During this election season we see the scathing personal attacks that can be laid down in the print and in a large way through technologies like email we have brought that into our own lives.  Now will video communications necessarily change that?  Short answer is no.  But in the end I have to admit I am just a bit burnt out.  If a person or group of people are angry with me just say it to my face and stop this cowardly email business.  Yes email people I view your love as cowardly, but do not worry technology moves on and it will all be dead before you know it, in fact it already has.

Good Night and Good Luck 

Hans Henrik Hoffmann Nov 1 2010

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