In 1971 Ray Tomlinson sent a message from one computer to another. And electronic mail was born.
He later told The Verge
, “At the time there was no really good way to leave messages for people. The telephone worked up to a point, but someone had to be there to receive the call.” Email was the revolution everyone was waiting for. A free and easy way to leave messages for someone else – whether or not they were available
at the time. Asynchronous
Now 50 years later, email is bigger than ever. From time to time, someone will introduce the next surefire email killer – Slack for instance, or remember Yammer? – but so far we only send MORE emails each year. In 2017, estimates hit 269 billion and in 2019 the counter passed 293 billion
Beyond the numbers, something else is going on. We’ve come to see email as synchronous
communication. A study in the UK
showed that a work email is opened on average within 6 seconds. That makes it almost faster than picking up the phone to get in touch.
But the ease of sending emails and the speed at which they’re read means we expect people to respond faster. And we feel pressure to respond quickly ourselves. Add the many new forms of communication to the mix – like WhatsApp, Slack, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, video calls and online learning platforms – and the question of whether we’re now better off is a real one.
All this is to say: I’m convinced we’d be happier using email as it was intended. Asynchronously. Where the recipient decides when to read and when to respond. Research like the above study supports this view.
And while researchers disagree as to the precise impact interruptions have on us and our work, they do agree on one thing: Constant attempts to multitask may feel productive, but at the end of the day the effect is more likely a negative than a positive one.