Fifty years of email, the correspondence we love to hate

From hieroglyphs to instant messaging, humans have been attempting to perfect the way we correspond with one another. And still, we love to hate to email.

Our collective ambivalence toward email belies our human need to send each other letters

Handwritten correspondence from Scotland in the 1800s. (British Library Flickr)

Email is the one form of correspondence we love to hate.

But if we think that's a modern problem, consider the words of this king from Antiquity: "If one knew how many letters a king has to write every day, one would not even touch a crown!"

The human need to correspond is as old as our species itself. But from cave paintings to carrier pigeons, and from tablets to text messages, the way we write to each other has evolved considerably over time.

In the Graeco-Roman world, papyrus was the medium of choice for people to correspond, said Antonia Sarri, a researcher at the University of Manchester's department of classics, ancient history and archaeology.
Antonia Sarri (University of Manchester)

It grew well in arid climates and made an ideal writing surface. Sarri and her colleagues have amassed thousands of letters on papyri, ranging from Italy to Greece and Egypt. In the centuries before the common era, papyrus was used to write personal letters that could then be dispatched through a formal messenger system, if one had access to, say, the Roman military, or less formally if one didn't. This could involve asking it to be passed along from one person to another until it reached its intended recipient.

The prevalence and content of letters varied between ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, in part because it was considered politically secretive to write in ancient Athens, where keeping things public was a cornerstone of Athenian democracy. But in later Roman times, where kings and emperors ruled, letter writing as an official means of communication was more common, Sarri told Spark host Nora Young.

And just like today, the importance of a message often dictated the medium – in this case the substrate – on which the message was written.

Personal letters and official correspondence was written on papyrus, whereas informal messages or short notes might be written on the broken pieces of a clay pot, she said. Important messages, such as from a monarch to a city, would be transcribed into marble or another stone for more permanence.

The medium also depended on geography: in northern England, where there was no papyrus, people cut pieces of wood very thinly and used them to exchange letters.

Fifty years of the '@' symbol

These days, however, most of our letter writing is done digitally, with most of it happening over email – whether we want it to or not.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of email sent across a network with the now-ubiquitous '@' symbol attached.

But just because email has been around for half a century, doesn't mean it can't be improved, said David Heinemeier Hansson.

He's a productivity expert, the co-founder of project-management software company Basecamp, which has just launched a new email service called, Hey.

David Heinemeier Hansson (Peter Adams Photography)

At the heart of email's problem, Heinemeier Hansson told Young, is that it means anybody in the world can send a message to you, anytime they want.

"Anyone can make the phone in your pocket buzz or your wrist buzz, and there isn't much you can do about it," he said. "That's not right."

He added that most people just think they're "bad" at email. That's not true, he said. "Email is bad at you."

Heinemeier Hansson pointed out that email hasn't fundamentally evolved since companies like Google and Microsoft became where the majority of people host their personal – and professional – email accounts.

"If you look back upon what Outlook or Gmail looked like 10 years ago, you probably can't notice the difference. And that just seems bizarre if you look through other pieces of technology that actually have had competition over that time. Look at a mobile phone [from] 2010 and it looks like something alien," he said.

His new email service is based around two main principles, he said. One is attention: Many of us get so many emails that we don't need that the ones that do matter get lost in the shuffle. Lots of people have hundreds, or thousands, of unread emails in their mailbox. So Hey allows the user to manually designate which senders' emails get through. If it's not somebody you want to hear from, you can prevent their messages from ever showing up in your inbox.

Perhaps more important, Heinemeier Hansson said the privacy – or lack of it – in the major email platforms is troubling.

"I think it's terrible. The stories that have come out of what Gmail does to people's email, like scanning their receipts to build up a history of what they bought. Why should Google know where I spend my money simply because I have my receipts sent to my Gmail?"

Moreover, a large majority of emails sent contain an invisible pixel that, once the recipient opens the email, reports back to the sender. And not just that the email was opened, but where, when and on what kind of device it was opened. The Hey email service blocks those tracking pixels, he said.

Overall, though, Heinemeier Hansson still believes email is a good thing, destined to stay with us for the long term, and rather than being replaced by platforms like Facebook and Twitter or WhatsApp, it will outlive them.

He said email is one of the last media where the writer is expected to be thoughtful before they commit to sending a message. It's a last refuge for long-form correspondence, where ideas can be properly addressed, in sentences and paragraphs, unlike the immediate reactions that short-form messages provide.

"We're big believers in the power of writing as a form of thinking."

Written by Adam Killick. Produced by Adam Killick and Michelle Parise