On the subject of e-mail…

Recently my colleague Jan Hickisch shared personal experience and results on how Circuit has increased his personal effectiveness and it provoked me to think about how e-mail is used today and to what degree we still use it for the purpose it was originally designed.

The controversy of who really invented e-mail continues today with multiple claimants.

You might be of the opinion that e-mail began its journey in 1971 when Ray Tomlinson added a file transfer protocol (CYPNET) to the PDP-10 command SNDMSG – for the first time this enabled messages to be sent outside of the local PDP connections using ARPANET by using the “@” delimiter to identify external hosts. This iteratively evolved to a specification in 1978 for those outside ARPANET called Multi-purpose Memo Distribution Facility (MMDF).

Or maybe you suppose that it began in 1978 when 14 year old V.A Shiva Ayyadurai who, while volunteering in a Newark dental school, created a system designed for office workers to send and receive electronic versions of memorandums – using a taxonomy that included To, From, Inbox, Outbox, Attachments, Forward, Reply etc.

What they both had in common was the concept of the memo (memorandum).

So what is the definition of a Memorandum?
Well the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of Memorandum suggests the following
From late 13th century British sources – an introduction to a note, short for memorandum est “it is to be remembered” or “a note to help the memory”.
In modern English we can substitute these entries as “A short note as a reminder” or “A note for recording something for future use.”

So with this in mind, how many of these contemporary e-mail scenarios match the original concept design?

The finger pointer – A user wants time and date stamped evidential proof that something was said in written recorded form so that later they can throw that colleague or colleagues under the bus. (Regional variation)

The Indy 500 (Le Mans) – The notion of sharing large files between distributed employees or contacts for virtual team-working on countless content iterations and revision cycles burning as much bandwidth as they can ensuring many version conflicts in the process.

Escalation by cc: – a personal pet hate and considerable social no-no where users copy (cc:) blind copy (bcc:) a line manager or director of the recipient. If this happened in real life it would be called a betrayal of trust.

The Manuscript – sending someone an e-mail of such rambling and turgid magnitude that the average smartphone or tablet battery will be challenged by the download of the text alone. Tapping on the reply button often hides so much of the original text that responding in any meaningful way is almost impossible without inducing RSI in the scrolling recipients forearm.

The Scattergun (Shotgun, Yodel or default gateway) – Since it is too difficult to actually find out who is the most appropriate person to receive this request in the organisation, users will default to sending this to multiple recipients in the vain hope that minimal world-wide duplication of effort will occur during response.

The Unrealistic Expectation – A user transmits an e-mail in the full (but entirely wrong) assumption that someone will not only receive it instantly but also execute upon each and every action hidden within, straight away and without any further contact from the sender until the day of the deadline. Dear Bob, please invent time travel and come back to me with the proof point three months ago. OR Not buying a lottery ticket and then expecting to win the jackpot.

The Sacrificial Address (alias, fall guy, scapegoat or stooge) – In order to try and protect standard work and personal addresses, users set up and administer additional accounts to ensure regular addresses don’t become overrun by worthless spam, e-mail marketing, phishing or un-prescribed “relationship improvement” medications.
Okay some of these scenarios might be (slightly) exaggerated and but there is a serious point to be made.

Tools like Circuit provide us with high quality real-time and asynchronous services to seamlessly match the optimal type of interaction to the availability of our colleagues regardless of their location.

I’m not saying that e-mail should be entirely dispensed with today – I think if we used it for the purposes it was originally designed it could still provide some value in the medium term.

But recent history has shown us that there are far better tools available for the way we work today.
Just because “it can” doesn’t mean “we should”.

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