I wasn’t there, obviously, for the early forms of distance communication. But I’d imagine it went something along the lines of messenger runners, horseback riders, organized telegram deliveries, mail carriers, telephones, then in the 80s and 90s came email. (You can throw in the telegraph, sure, but I don’t think that was widely and commercially accessible- you still needed the letter carriers to take them from the telegraph offices to homes and businesses.)
My time here on earth has simply consisted of snail mail, telephones, email, and now in the 21st century, cell phone texting, messaging apps, and video conferencing. And I’ve noticed a trend that started way back in the “before time” pre-Covid. But it’s become far more prevalent now and businesses haven’t really caught up yet.
When email really took off, the postal industry tanked. Were it not for big box industrial shipping like Amazon and business retail deliveries, it largely wouldn’t exist right now. What’s more, people have often stopped making their daily trips to the mailbox, knowing that nearly anything that might arrive is junk. We’ve long relegated the postal mail to a second or even third-tier form of communication.
With the advent of unlimited cell phone plans, we saw similar strides being taken with texting becoming preferred over phone calls. I know many people, and you probably do too, who screen their calls and choose to take almost none of them. Voicemail boxes were quickly being utilized over talking in real-time. And in more recent years, many voicemails are ignored, leaving dozens of contacts with full boxes and no real way for some to get ahold of them. Phone calls for the last decade or more have also become a second-tier form of communication.
“Send an email! Shoot me a text!” Those have been the buzzwords for the better part of the last twenty years. But I’m pretty sure that the latest communicative technology to be kicked to the curb as passé is, in fact, our electronic mail. Think about your own right now. Chances are, you’re in one of two groups. Either you rigorously scour through every email that arrives in your inbox and distribute and/or read accordingly, and then clear it out so it’s squeaky clean or you’re more like me –
Both groups have begun to have one thing in common though- emails often sit unopened and unread for hours, days, even weeks. Entire productivity books and seminars are designed to help you find the optimal time to check your emails and then be ok with leaving them behind the other 23 hours of your day. And that’s great- I’m all for efficiency and time management.
The thing I’m noticing though, seems to be a lag measure from this. Perhaps even a corollary. I’m not entirely sure. But when we do open those emails, we’re only skimming them. Our brains are now wired to distill information down to under 200 characters, so we pick up on highlights and leave the rest. And we don’t seem to notice or care too much as we do.
And why should we? In an era where internal communication and collaboration apps like Slack, Trello, Asana, Monday, Base Camp, and others exist and immediate audiovisual connection can happen with Teams, Zoom, (and even Slack again), hasn’t email become old, clunky, and outmoded?
Well, yes and no. The intra-business connectivity of communication apps within an organization has made it far easier to track any and all communication, send it to whichever channels are needed, run issues up the chain, and quickly collate information. But it fails to connect with those outside the organization. And while it’s easy to set up big presentations or team workshops in a faux-to-face environment with video conferencing, it’s tedious and awkward to set up such a session simply to pass on details, ask a small but important question, or inform others of scheduling issues.
Don’t believe me? Ask around whenever key information is included within an email and nowhere else- event details, schedule changes, subjects covered, due dates, budget breakdowns, you name it. Chances are, (and if they’re honest), a whole swath of your company didn’t even notice. If it wasn’t in the Subject Line, it was deemed low priority on their reading priorities. And, you’d probably have to ask those who didn’t make it to the meeting you’re bringing up the question in the first place- because there’s a good chance someone didn’t read the memo about the meeting and hasn’t even shown up!
Businesses still need email. They still rely heavily on email as a means of connecting with the world outside. The problem is, for all the users within the business? Electronic mail has gone the way of the telegram. And corporate culture hasn’t found a solution for it yet. I would even go so far as to say- they haven’t even noticed.