What is the significance of the @ symbol?
Updated: Apr 29
Can we love our way back to email — or have we moved on forever? Email and productivity - does being always on and immediately responsive via email make you the good girl (or boy)? What is the productivity cost? Should we let our emails go to the catcher - what are the alternatives?
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Dear email, we all love to hate you. Maybe you hate yourself for all that you’ve become?
You weren’t like this in the beginning. You were singular in your purpose — a one-way delivery mechanism as used by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965.
In 1971 Tomlinson built the first application for network email allowing messages to be sent to users on other computers. Tomlinson chose the @ sign to separate local from global emails in the mailing address. User@host became the standard for email addresses, as it remains today.
Tripp and Tyler’s YouTube ‘skit’ on ‘Email in Real Life’ is funny and on-point, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of how annoying one would find the living, breathing personification of email.
Email would be the irritating friend showing up unannounced. The person following you around and talking about things you don’t want to know about; reminding you of things that you have to do, or even worse the things someone else wants you to do. Email would wake you up in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, it’d interrupt your intimate dinner, push its way into weddings, funerals — it’d even make an appearance during sex.
Email would tell you something once, twice, thrice and then tell you the same thing over and over.
In short, email would be that chronically self-obsessed friend that would pretend to care about you. They might even think they care about you but cannot. Caring is not in email’s nature; nor is understanding
With such a one-way relationship, why do we bother so much about email?
I have let 73,388 emails go to the catcher. And at the same time, I care enough to write about the subject. @email, I care enough to think about ‘us’ — to understand you and our relationship.
A few years ago, I amassed too many emails, and Google shut me down. I opened another account using my married name.
Email is the bane of my digital life.
I run a professional services firm. My dislike of email runs so deep my business partner, Amanda apologises whenever she has cause to email me. I am so hopeless, Amanda texts, Skypes or calls me if an important email has hit my inbox and requires immediate action on my behalf.
I could spend all day responding to — ‘INCOMING!!’ or I could I spend my time ignoring email and instead write, research and talk to people.
Email is an interruption. It moves me out of the flow state, and half the time, I go into my email and leave with the job half done. Once I am away from the big tasks, the litany of distractions pulls me all over the place.
Amanda calls, “um, have you sent that file off to the client?”
I scoff, “of course I have. I’ll show those people,” I think, “I’ll forward it to them again so they can see I have already sent it.”
Back I go to my inbox, and shamefully and annoyingly I see that my half-written email is sitting there. Alternatively, I find the finished article doing nothing, waiting for me to hit send.
The user experience of email is grim. I can’t keep track of conversations or files. It’s not clear to me what people want me to do with their email, or how important any one email might be.
I’ve recently changed my attitiude. Now I almost manage to get along with email. Let’s just say that I’m working on working out how to make email work for me.
Sorry email, but everyone hates you
Clients also love to hate email. All but a few clients continue to engage in the very same email practices that drive them to complain. Obsessive checking of their inbox, sending off rapid fire responses and copying-in the world ‘just in case.’ Eighty per cent of the emails I receive that require action come from clients; the remainder is from suppliers. To the latter, I say, ‘get your act together.’ To clients, I say, ‘I am a digital consultant, let’s start educating, training, finding a better way to communicate and collaborate.’
Without viable alternatives for collaboration, file sharing and knowledge management, email has become the default in too many organisations — most don’t even realise this. The number one complaint I get when doing user research relates to the volume of email. I don’t think I have ever worked with a client where this is not the case.
As an alternative free your email, let it be itself; unhindered with your demands. Stop asking email to also be a bully, to give evidence, to store your files and to be your conduit to collaboration and conversation.
Tell people how you prefer to be contacted about matters and then show and help people do that. You could respond to an email in the following ways:
Just don’t respond
Answer their emails with a phone call
Suggest chat or similar for communications
Teams, Skype, Messenger, and Slack, are all apps designed for chatting to people. They support one-to-one and one-to-many relationships. These apps are conversational, the content intended to be ephemeral. Built-in emojis make for quick acknowledgement; conversations build on the rapid nature of comms. The forementioned make for fertile ground on which innovations and ideas can grow.
Apart from client communications, I use my email as an aggregator for a wide variety of news. I have a very few paid subscriptions to the likes of the New York Times and Medium. I subscribe to the CIO newsletter, FastCompany, Nat Geo, Wired and numerous other blogs and publications. I also sign up for emails from brands I use.
A couple of times a day, I check my inbox for any client emails and respond to those. Then I let my email take me down the rabbit hole. I click on links to stories in my inbox, they open in Safari, and I command > tab to go back to the email window. Once I have a gazillion tabs open, or I come across a story I have to read right now, I head over to Safari with a cup of team and I read.
I do this first thing in the morning, over lunch and at the end of my working day. Many writers avoid this, but I find it energising. I share, comment and use articles for inspiration. I post to LinkedIn a couple of times most days, usually by sharing and commenting on stories I think might be of interest. I try (and fail to tweet), and I write and publish on Medium.
With the help of email, I keep an eye on brands
I consult to clients on all things digital. As such, I am endlessly curious about online behaviours, including the beahiour of brands. The emails I receive from brands are just one way of monitoring this. It was, for example, interesting to me how brands acted at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. The messaging was the same:
It’s business as usual,
We are taking new measures (increased handwashing) and,
I’m happy others chose to write full posts on this trend. I shared and commented accordingly.
Dear Email — is it really over for us?
Email, if I could get you out of my life entirely, would I?
If I am honest, probably not. Although I do use an actual news aggregator, I’m guilty of the sins of others. I prefer you as my bastardised aggregator. I find your scatter-gun, roulette nature, at least in this matter, cute. The haphazard way you roll that dice suits me.
Maybe I’ll mature and outgrow you Email — but it’d be even better if it were the other way around @email.