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Email has completely killed letter writing

By Jacob Kudzayi Mutisi

When was the last time you received a letter in your letterbox? Some households have removed the letterbox completely. Do you remember life before email? If you were born after 1995 then you probably don’t. It is now hard to imagine a time when a fax was considered the height of sophistication or a pager was the only way to reach someone when they were out of the office. As technology completely killed letter writing, worldwide letter writing may have dwindled substantially over the years but billions of people are participating in the written word in the electronic form as never before, says the inventor of email V A Shiva Ayyadurai. Email has explosively supported the growth of letter writing globally. Today, unlike some decades ago, where penning letters was limited to a few who could afford education, billions are now writing letters, in electronic form, as never before. We can argue about the quality of writing but regardless, more people than ever before, are participating in the written word.

In 1978, Ayyadurai invented the world’s first email system at the age of 14 and was awarded the first US copyright for “email”. He feels people tend to confuse email with the simple exchange of short text messages such as in texting, SMS, chat or Twitter, saying these have “destroyed” letter writing.

“Email is not the simple exchange of text messages. Email is the electronic version of the interoffice mail system used for formal letter or memo communication,” he says. “Clearly texting, SMS and chat are very different from writing a letter or email. In fact, I believe what is going on is that people are realising that you use short messaging, like texting, SMS, chat, Twitter, etc. for quick informal messages, and you use email for more intimate and formal letter writing. “In\ this sense, email is the preferred medium for ‘letter writing’, and if anything, texting and chat, are killing ‘letter writing’. Email did precisely what I predicted, back in 1978, it took over the postal mail process and system of writing letters.”

Mumbai-born Ayyadurai has a book “The Email Revolution: Unleashing the Power to Connect”, published by Allworth Press, in which he demonstrates how organisations can realise the infinite potential of email to strengthen their brands and reach their audiences in incredibly creative ways. According to the author, email was designed for formal business communication, and as long as we participate in business, email will be here. When he created the first email, he saw its real value.

“The system as a service which could automate all paper-based activities of managing mail in the office environment by providing features of inbox, outbox, folders, address book, attachments, sorting, archiving, etc. to emulate electronically the interoffice mail system – the email we all use today” says Ayyadurai he realised that email, if adopted widely, beyond its value economically and productivity-wise, would also have immense social implications. “This is why I also had stated then that email would change our ‘patterns of communication, attitudes and styles’. Today, email has become a legal medium, for example, and in business communications, especially, people should be more cognisant of what they put in email communications, for it is far different than informal communications such as texting, chat or SMS,” he says.

Ayyadurai, however, regrets that the postal service of the US, in 1997 did not heed his advice and embrace email, to become a provider of an email service such as Gmail or Hotmail. “Such a decision would have positioned them for the future as well as other postal services worldwide, since at that time, most of the world’s postal services looked to the US Postal Service for new innovations,” he says.

Ayyadurai, who managed email for the Clinton administration and created email-sorting software which was used by companies like Nike, AT&T and Toyota, gets upset with “so-called experts” who, since the 1990s have been saying that “email is dead”. “When chat came in the early 1990s they said ‘Email is Dead’; when SMS came, they said ‘Email is Dead’; and when Facebook came, Zuckerberg declared ‘Email is Dead’. They all confused short messaging and community messaging with formal messaging. Email is not texting. Email is not a Facebook post,” he asserts.

Ayyadurai stresses that email is here to stay. “I am confident because I know what email is, and what it is not, having invented it. And, more importantly, as a media researcher, and as a systems biologist, I believe that we as humans are hardwired to seek and engage in three different types of messaging modes: Short Messaging, Community Messaging, [and] Formal Messaging,” he says. Ayyadurai believes another smart kid can definitely create another more convenient mode of communication.
“I think there are a bunch of kids out there, given the right ecosystem, they will create things, we have never dreamed before or thought were ‘impossible’ – think about a device for telepathic communication – for example – far better than typing away all day,” he hopes.

Email has had a profound impact on society through how humans communicate. It has drastically reduced the use of traditional mail. For instance, more and more people have all bills and payments that used to be delivered through traditional mail now delivered “paperlessly” through email.

Online, Email addresses have become the standard way to identify yourself online. Think about it, it is usually the first piece of information you hand over to a new acquaintance or business. Think of all the things you need an email address for. Try setting up an Instagram account, ordering something online or applying for a job without one. Chances are, you will not get very far.

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