The first electronic mail reactions

Fifty years ago, email came into existence. Since then, it’s grown in use, functionality and acceptance. In fact, having an email address is near enough an expectation today. Email permeates our private and professional lives.

But electronic mail was not always so settled in our daily lives. Indeed, the road to get where it is today started with more than a few bumps. And looking back at our first impressions of such a widely used technology shows us a bigger picture about technological innovation.

Here, we explore some of the first electronic mail reactions and what they tell us about new technology today.

Expectation vs reality

Imagine being shown, for the first time, the ability to send a message anywhere, near instantly. Where you are used to snail mail, with the stamps and the waiting, here is a way to have your message delivered instantly.

You’d reasonably think that the first electronic mail reactions would be largely positive. People might approach the new technology with cautious optimism. Or they might have been amazed and excited.

Instead, though, the early years of email encountered far more disdain than delight. Indeed, initial articles, discussions and reactions for electronic mail were far from glowing. So, what exactly were the first electronic mail complaints?

“It’s too costly!”

Unlike letters or even phone calls, emails cost almost nothing to send. They have little-to-no marginal costs — sending 100 emails costs no more than sending one email. So, then, it’s odd to think that one of the first electronic mail impressions would concern costs.

And yet, in the mid-80s, that was exactly the concern, according to (for instance) a 1984 publication of the Gainesville Sun. It was pointed out that for all the promise of email, the costs of the equipment needed was simply too much.

This was, at the time, a valid concern, too. Emails needed computers, a way for the computers to connect (i.e. a modem, or the internet) and the requisite software. Personal home computers were starting to become available, and as with other technology, their youth meant hefty price tags.

Having everything you needed for email, then, could easily cost thousands. Though there were some slightly cheaper models, a computer could set you back anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. That’s approximately $2,500 – 24,000 (£2,000 – 19,500) today. And that’s before you’ve bought a modem or any needed software.

In short, first electronic mail impressions didn’t see email as the low cost, handy tool it is today.

“We don’t need electronic mail!”

But cost complaints are a common complaint about new technology. And, over time, they inevitably alleviate. The thing is, the question of money wasn’t the only negative reaction to electronic mail. Indeed, the first electronic mail reactions included many that thought the technology was unneeded.

The usefulness of emails was, at first, largely dismissed. It was thought that electronic mail, while an impressive advancement, was an unneeded one. Why use email when you could use the tried and tested routes like the telephone or the postal service?

Electronic mail was new, and to many, it was unclear what benefits it brought. Instant communication was achievable face-to-face or using the phone. Asynchronous communication had the postal service — and with that, you could send extra things, like materials or packages.

What, perhaps, wasn’t considered, was the idea that email didn’t need to replace either of these channels. Instead, it provided a third option. It begs the question: did email cause a change in societal needs, or were those needs already there, for emails to answer?

“Email overload!”

The first electronic mail reactions also cited a fear of email overload — a problem that many are aware of today.

Email overload is the issue of having too many emails to manage at any one time. It’s a problem highlighted in this 1996 article from The New York Times. It argued that email was hurting the office. Instead of communicating face to face, you’d send an email. Instead of waiting to share anecdotes at the water cooler, send an email.

As such, another of the first electronic mail reactions suggested that emails represented a blight on office culture and productivity. No one can get much done when they’re wading through email admin.

Email overload is a problem that’s evolved alongside email — earning recent attention as much as it did in the past. It turns out, it’s not a deal-breaker. Plus, there are ways to manage it. For instance, with the help of automation software, which can parse, organise and even reply to your emails for you.

“Too much spam!”

The first spam email was sent as early as 1978. (Though the term ‘spam’ wouldn’t make it into the dictionary until 20 years later, in 1998.)

And indeed, this idea of unwanted messages was another of the first electronic mail reactions, one related to email overload. As electronic mail grew in use, so too did the proliferation of email spam. And with that, more unnecessary emails to deal with.

Rather than stopping the rise of email, however, ways around this teething problem were created. In 1996, the Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) was introduced to help combat spam. In 2002, the EU released the Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive, joining the fight. And in 2003/2004, The USA introduced their answer, in the form of the CAN-SPAM Act.

An allegory for other technology

As seen in the first electronic mail reactions, new technology tends to spark change aversion — fear of the changes, the new, the unknown. Just look at the fear surrounding automation software, for another example.

There’s a tendency to mistrust new technologies that later turn out to be extremely useful. A recent example that may apply is the anxieties around artificial intelligence.

New technology faces change aversion, teething pains, and the need to build trust. It’s a rite of passage. It’s the way that society helps to shape, improve and direct technological advancement. It allows us to fix any teething issues. (For instance, later spam filters, addition of attachments, and the help of automation all served to boost email usability.)

The lesson

Despite its negative first impressions, email has stuck around. Now, it’s hard to imagine life without it. Yet, had we listened to the first electronic mail reactions, we might never have seen the benefits of the technology.

This serves as a cautionary tale. It represents a view of the way that we so often greet new technology. And how, with time and effort, we can work through the teething pains, and create the trust needed to accept new technology.

We often reject new technology at the start of its cycle. But emails serve as an example of why our first impressions are not always right.

Useful links

The 50-year history of email

Automation and technological determinism

ELI5: What is a change agent?