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.


  1. Is it "elder mail", or just email in an elder mode? My guess is the daughter was reacting to the filling and pruning, not the exchange of message longer than ~140 characters (or ~420 for facebook) and with foo@bar addressing (though you never know with kids these days...). You need to do some market research with her and ask her if gmail is too hard.

    Of course overestimating the cost of storage v. underestimating the cost of deletion has been a hot button issue with me for a few years now. If we assume that :

    o email storage costs $0.50/GB-mo,
    o that this cost is dropping by a factor of two every two years,
    o that the average email is 10KB, and
    o that your time is worth more than $1/hr,

    then if you need to spend more than a second deciding whether or not a message should be deleted to save space, it is cheeper to hold on to it than delete it.

    [the ironic thing here, is I posted this computation in March 09 to facebook, because facebook has no way to file or search posts it took me a non-trivial amount of time to find it]

    see also

  2. My 15-year-old son has two e-mail accounts and reads neither, much to my frustration. I think it has to do with function. For communication, he uses only texting and Facebook and he doesn't care if he can find it again or not. For documents, he will e-mail them to a classmate but then deletes the e-mail, since the file is on his disk. It will be interesting to see if his methods change when he's forced to use e-mail to communicate with "elders" when he starts contacting colleges, applying for jobs, etc., when keeping records becomes important. At the moment, his folder-based mom can always find the e-mail that the trip organizer or the coach sent. But even I am forced to search when the structure fails. What I find fascinating is the process of selecting search criteria to find what you are looking for. If we keep everything (like all my e-mail from 1999 on), over time the amount will be enormous. How do we train our brains to recall suitably unique criteria so we won't need to plow through mountains of results to get the one thing we seek?