Why Email Is Like Schrödinger’s Cat And How This Doesn’t Have To Be A Problem
Email is a lot like Schrödinger’s cat. Both are dead and alive at the same time. However, there is one difference: what we find difficult to believe in the case of the cat, we hardly stop to think about in the case of email. Mathias Röckel explores the past, present and future of email.
Email Is Alive!
If you are looking for proof that email is very much alive, please imagine having no access to your email for, say, a week: if this thought does not make you at least slightly nervous, please get in touch with us right away. You might be sitting on a million dollar secret.
Still not convinced that email is still kicking? Then let us take a quick look at the past 30+ years: we know, exactly, when the first email reached Germany and to whom it was sent. We also know what it said (and that it contained a typo): ‘Wilkomen in CSNET! Michael, This is your official welcome to CSNET.’ This copy was sent to Michael Rotert, back then employee of the University Karlsruhe and today Chairman of the Board at eco – Association of the Internet industry.
“I was especially delighted about this greeting, as the sender really didn’t know any German, but she wanted to try nevertheless,” Rotert remembers the occasion and explains the spelling (the German word for welcome should be spelled “willkommen”).
This was in 1984 and if you look at the statistics since, there is no doubt that email is one huge success story. Year after year, we have seen an increase in users, addresses, data volumes. According to Radicati, there are currently 3.7 billion email users in the world (total population: more than 7.5 billion). They send and receive about 269 billion emails per day.
To add anecdotal evidence: throughout this millennium, not a single tech conference (that I have attended) took place without a panel discussing what the Next Big Thing might be – while half of the audience kept peeking at their screens to make sure they didn’t miss anything important, which, more often than not, meant checking their email.
Shortly after the beginning of the new millennium, there was a USB gadget that came in the shape of a bird about as tall as a medium-sized parrot. The gadget was called PC Mascot and its job was to nervously shake its wings every time a new email arrived in your inbox. Every single time you received a new message, the bird would give its cheerful alarm and you were supposed to turn your attention to whatever it was that the email wanted you to do (the bird could also read your messages for you). Back then, apparently, receiving an email was considered an event that was well worth being interrupted by.
How times have changed!
Even a decade ago, the bell seemed to be tolling for email. But it didn’t die then.
In today’s corporate world, an email inbox looks very much like a live feed. To keep up with it would mean doing little else (and that is not even counting all the spam emails that are either caught along the way or end up in client’s spam folders). The sheer weight of incoming messages has again led to claims that email is dead or on its last legs. Forecasts see it becoming completely obsolete in the face of social media, instant messaging apps, video conversation tools, and so on.
Resuscitating email – curing inbox overload
Email is like any other medium. They never disappear for good. There is always a niche for an old medium, and in the case of email, it may very well be that this niche will continue to grow impressively. And there are many good reasons to keep sending and receiving emails.
Marketing is clearly one of them, but so too are, according Vittorio Bertola from Open-Xchange and Wouter van den Brink from Aangetekend Mailen, the important things in life.
Machine learning is coming to the rescue of the cluttered email inbox. Intelligent email apps are emerging that claim to resolve the problem of email overload by sorting, prioritizing, delaying delivery at bad times, summarizing and reminding you of important information at the right time, and taking care of actions such as unsubscribing for you. (This last one should, in itself, provide email marketers with a new incentive to make sure that their content is relevant and targeted effectively.)
But in the corporate world, there is a strong trend towards using other technologies, not for all, but for some processes that we grew accustomed to handling with increasing amounts of email. Modern forms of collaboration – that is communicating with our colleagues, our customers and our partners about ideas and projects and all the creating, sharing and commenting files of all kinds that comes with it – is increasingly taking place outside email.
eco, for instance, has recently started working with an online collaboration tool. Staff access the tool through secure (VPN) connections and have a variety of options to organize themselves and their projects. Take the editorial team of dotmagazine: the magazine’s team has their own space where they can work together throughout the entire editorial process. But such tools are no panacea for internal communication, and our team still makes use of email where it makes sense.
Solutions like this have not, and probably never will, eliminate email. But they do allow us to overcome some of the issues we started having, because we, when we didn’t know any better, decided to use email as something it was never intended for.