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April 25, 2004

Letters are not email

Letters are not email, and emails are not letters. Yet habit leads us into handling them as if they were. When a new technology is first introduced, we tend to use it in the same ways that we used whatever it is replacing. A good example is the horseless carriage. In it's first few incarnations the horseless carriage was basically a carriage without a horse, so the base of the 'carriage' was positioned above the wheel axles. This resulted in somewhat of a bumpy/jerky ride, but people were so excited about experiencing the new technology that it didn't really bother them.

Then, after several incarnations and about twenty years (a generation), designers, manufacturers, and customers started thinking about the horseless carriage in totally new and unique ways. The carriage base was lowered so that the body's center of gravity was below the wheel axles, and suddenly the driving experience became a pleasure instead of bonejarring.

Quite a few decades and several generations later, email hit the scene. As might be expected, its first incarnation resembled written letters in many respects. It was an easy metaphor - easy to explain, easy to gain customer acceptance, and relatively easy to implement.

Unfortunately, just like the horseless carriage, the letter/email metaphor not only brought all the good points of mail along with it, but also the bad points. In many ways it made the bad points several orders of magnitude worse. In the old 'letter' world when I opened the mail box in front of my home, I would find lots of envelopes. All of them were 'created equal' in that I personally had to look at each and everyone of them to decide if I wanted to open them, or just toss them into the trash. If I opened them, then I had to read the contents and make a serious of other decisions. Did I need to follow up? Did I want to file it? I had to setup a filing system (old shoebox perhaps), and commit to some sort of periodic review. And, more often than not, my mail would be chock full of junk mail.


What a pain. I hated it, and as a result, I was an extremely poor coorespondent. I would have to force myself to write a letter, buy a stamp, and eventually mail it. Junk mail was even worse - and most of it went directly into the trash, or into the fireplace.

I was actually very positive back in the early 1980's when I first started using email. No more stamps. No more trips to the post office. No more junk mail.... It was fun. In some way I probably felt almost the same as one of my ancestors did when they took their first ride in a horseless carriage.

But email is not a letter. It may resemble it in many ways, but it is not the same - far from it. Yet here we are, opening every email, spending countless hours weeding through it, and almost drowning in a sea of email spam.

So, I keep asking myself, when are we going to make the transition to the next email incarnation? I have this extremely powerful PC sitting on my desk (or on my lap), and what do I use it for? A very expensive virtual letter simulation! Kind of bizarre really.

I used to write letters by hand, put them in envelopes, mail them, open the letters than came back, read them, trash or file them. When I wanted to check on a past letter, I would open my files and search through them, trying desparately to remember who wrote to me, and when they wrote. If it was an on-going exchange of letters, then I might spend hours searching through stacks of correspondence.

Now, thanks to the wonders of modern science, I can do exactly the same thing on my computer screen. I can create a virtual set of file cabinets, create and label files, etc. Of course I can do it with less stress and pain, but basically what today's email systems to do is to act as a letter emulation system.

What do I want?

First, and foremost, I want my computer to do the vast majority of the work for me. I want it to deal with junk mail, and to search, sort, file, and alert for me with a minimum of effort on my part. I want to be able to read an email and automatically find links to other correspondence that I've received. I want it to know the difference between 'trusted' friends and relatives versus someone that it has never seen before. I want it to clean up the trash and deal with the ever increasing flood of spam.

I want it to allow me to deal with my email in terms of 'views' instead of files. I want to create views of my emails that are based not just on simple keyword searches, but rather on conditions that I can define. I want to be able to ask for all the emails received within the past two weeks from trusted friends that include the word 'investments', for example.

Above all, I want it to be based on the metaphor of communication instead of the old letter metaphor.


April 25, 2004 | Permalink


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