You’ve got mail

Posted by Marlinee on Mar 27, 2016 in Work |

The guy who invented email died earlier this month. Although at this stage in email’s evolution, we probably would rather bury Raymond Tomlinson than praise him, there is no denying its influence on how we conduct our personal and business correspondence today.

I having been using email since 1985, giving Ray a bit of a head start to perfect things after he first taught computers attached to ARPANET to address each other individually in 1971. By 1986 I was actually in charge of our entire corporate email system, a responsibility I was as far from being qualified for as being in charge of refueling the space station. Luckily being in charge meant having a group of people who did the actual work of making sure the system was alive and well and accurately transmitting electronic messages coast to coast. My crowning achievement was overseeing the day we had to break the system into two parts to accommodate the growth in user base, which happened on a weekend so as not to prevent inconvenience. And that in itself tells you how far we have evolved (or actually, devolved): it was perfectly okay to go without email on a Saturday and Sunday and the world did not end. Fortunately the electronic surgery went off without a hitch because I have no idea what I could have done if everything had gone south except head south myself to Paraguay or somewhere else without extradition.

Email initially replaced paper memos as the primary device for internal communication. Like email, memos arrived in your personal inbox. Like email, memos were often useless distractions, such as announcing a redesign of the spaces in the parking lot (an actual memo I actually got in 1979). Unlike email, it was easier to say you didn’t get the memo and therefore willfully ignore the shift in lines of the parking spaces.

But to give it its due, email is perhaps one of the few electronic innovations that actually contributed to the (as yet unattained) goal of the paperless office because it made the paper memo and its cousin the three-part inter-office communication form obsolete. Oh, except for the guys (and they were all guys) who had their secretaries print out their emails before they would read them, and then have them filed after duly stamping them with the ‘read’ stamp.

Of course email may have made a dent in paper consumption but it created an entirely new problem: inbox bloat. That’s because it’s possible for anyone to issue memos to anyone else all day and, even worse, all night. It also allows the dreaded ‘reply all’ function, which we all know is the 10th circle of hell.

For reasons that escape me, if you search for ‘memo template’ you will get 535,000 results. I personally have not seen the electronically created version of a paper memo since about 1990. However, one thing that was good about them was there were rules about when to use them, rules what to say in them, and especially, rules about who to send them to – part of what we used to call the ‘rules of business’ communication. And that’s really what companies are trying to re-institute when they make forays into trying to reign in rampant email. If they would just go back to first principles of memo best practices, the problem would be solved. Oops – gotta go – my inbox just pinged me.

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