Email? lol

One hundred and fifty years ago, traditionalists predicted the telephone would never catch on as a means of business communication. What industrialist in his right mind would agree to a contract over a wire? No, the only way to conduct business was face to face.

I can remember when electronic mail first became available for business users and then general use. (Here’s a 1981 “thought leadership” ad from Honeywell describing a product that I helped document. Behold the cutting edge!)

1981 email ad
"What the heck is Electronic Mail?"

Adopting E-mail took some persuasion. At first people sniffed at the idea of dashing off an informal, unproofread e-mail instead of a carefully written memorandum. Articles were written on whether it would be accepted as credible, whether it was a step down, and even what constituted eMail etiquette. Of course, the purists were innundated by the subsequent flood of emails (even if 90% of it turned out to be junk), and in business today, an email is the de facto memo. You can get your point across just as effectively, it carries just as much weight, and if you email something stupid, you can get into just as much trouble as if you had it typed and inked your signature on it. And I think technical writers have thrived in this environment, because the impact of our writing skills were magnified. (I don’t like to get into face-to-face arguments, but I’m lethal in flame wars…!)

OK, so now it’s a generation later, and we’ve all become comfortable with email. As reported this week by the New York Times (it’s OK, I read it online), young adults consider email passé—excuse me, lame—and prefer text messages and instant messages for their immediacy. Futurists have begun to predict that companies will communicate with their customers this way. (STC Associate Fellow Jon Baker thinks it will become the primary means of communicating technical information.) The rest of us sniff at the idea. Communicating a nuanced message in 140 characters? OMG. There’s a new communications gap.

Given the historical examples I’ve cited, and knowing my Gandhi, I can guess at the likely progression of events: first we scoff at the idea, then we fight it, but in the end we have to adopt it. I’m in Stage One: I think my friend Jon is wrong. But I’m not going to bet against him, and I’m going to continue exploring the medium.

Published by Steven Jong

I am a retired technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

3 thoughts on “Email? lol

  1. I love the font they used for the copy in that ad. It’s so — well, 1981. In 1981 I would’ve thought that guy was an old fogy. Now I look like him. Sigh.

    Like you, Steve, I don’t know what the primary media for TechComm will be 10 or 20 years from now. But I know they won’t be the same ones as today. Like you, I’m resisting the temptation to scoff or fight, and resolving to keep my mind open.


  2. I remember that ad! A scoffer posted it on his office door at Data General…a couple years before DG rolled out Comprehensive Electronic Office, which immediately proved itself a fine tool for prodding my subject-matter experts at other locations. 🙂

    But be fair: Hindsight’s really the only way we can sort out truly useful innovations from novelties. This is why so many companies fail.


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