Sunday, January 10, 2010

Elder Mail

I recall using email for the first time when I joined Hewlett-Packard as a new engineer. I liked the ability to share designs, bugs and information with my fellow engineers. From that day forward, I had to find ways of organizing, deleting, and archiving my email. When AOL burst on to the scene with their dial-up accounts and email service, I helped my parents understand email and how it could increase communications with their children. Needless to say, it took them a long time to get into the email craze. A few years later, with my email filling up with 'if you care, you will forward this message to 10 friends and family members', I wondered why I ever helped them. I spent more time managing email. When Spam arose, I spent even more time managing email. Sometimes, I was thankful when I had to do a fresh system reinstall. Since I never backed-up my email, I started with a new, clean mailbox at the cost of losing information.

I tried Gmail Beta as soon as I could get a friend to invite me into the trial. Google changed email by introducing conversations and an ever-increasing storage limit (now at 7.4 Gigabytes). Just as in having a conversation with a friend, you don't delete a conversation from your memory or Gmail. They used Spam filters to keep junk out of my Gmail. I spent less time managing Gmail. Nothing seems to stop my parents from forwarding the 'if you care' messages. I don't care since I don't worry about storage space. So far, I have not lost a single conversation due to a system crash. I use the 'search' feature to provide 'on-demand' organization for the conversations.

Recently, I have been using Twitter, blogspot, facebook, and other social networking services. These Cloud software services have millions of users and tons of storage. Just like Gmail, they are about hosting discussions. The discussions are an ongoing stream. They don't get organized, filed, or filtered. We choose who sees and receives our discussions. Nothing gets deleted. I don't have to organize the streams of discussions. Searching is done by who we connect to and what they publish.

I had an epiphany during a face-to-face (hard to believe isn't it) discussion with a friend who had brought her teenaged daughter into work. Her teenaged daughter is a 'power' facebook user. Her daughter sat down at her desk, looked at her email screen with a bunch of file folders to the left, and asked about those. My friend explained that she had to file her email messages into folders because she wanted to keep them organized so she could find a message when needed, and her company wanted to keep the email server space available. Her daughter looked up, scrunched her face and whined, 'that's sounds too hard'. Email has become 'elder' mail. The notions of discussions, publish once, store forever, search everything, and social organization are driving us to a completely different way of communicating.

Maybe the 'if you care' emails will be replaced by the 'if you care, you'll subscribe to my Twitter feed' requests.