Five things I’ve learned from 20 years of email

Twenty years ago, I did something that ended up changing my life: I got my first email address. Now, I’m not one of those persons who simply got their first email in high school, or through an AOL account. Instead, email was something rather mythical that I read about when I found a book called “the hacker bible” in the IT department of a local book store. The book largely consisted of photo copies of slightly outdated hacker zines from both the U.S. and Germany, which left me with the impression that I had to build my own acoustic coupler and then somehow get access to something called a VAX to ever use email.

Luckily, I checked with someone at a small computer store first, where I learned that I could just buy a 2400 bps modem instead. They also gave me the contact info of a local hacker club. One thing led to another, and I was soon the proud owner of a 30 character-long email address. Initially, it didn’t get all that much use. On an average day, I’d maybe get one email, likely containing little more than the next move of an email chess game I’d play with a friend from school.

Little did I know that 20 years later, I would get hundreds of emails every single day. Here’s what I learned from using email for 20 years:

1. I’m old. I’m not just saying this to be coy, or because 20 years is a really long time. But I recently realized that I cannot imagine a future without email. I know that plenty of folks have moved on to Facebook (s FB) messages, IM, corporate messaging networks, and so on. Kids increasingly see email as something old people do. Well, guess what: I’m one of those old people. Sure, I also use all of those other ways of communication. But I grew up with email, and it will always be what I’m gonna check first thing in the morning.

2. Reinventing yourself is good. That being said, I have given up on a whole bunch of things throughout the years. Email addresses is one of them. I used around 8 or 9 email addresses to regularly communicate with people over the years. Today, I still use two of them. The rest is history. I set up a few auto forwarders over the years, but recently realized that one of the addresses these forwarded emails have been going to had been bouncing for at least a year. Oops. Still, I don’t think I missed a thing. Moving on to a new email address has been like moving to a new city for me. Sure, you lose sight of a few people, but you’ll always know how to get hold of the ones who matter.

You can either shoot for inbox zero – or you decide to let things go.

3. Getting things done is good. Letting things go is better. In a few weeks, I’m set to hit an important milestone: Inbox 10,000. I know that this would give some people a heart attack, but in the face of hundreds new of emails every day, I’ve learned to let go. I keep track of my important goals and milestones elsewhere, and try to keep on top of my daily emails as good as I can. But I’ve also realized that email is imperfect, and that there are things that are more important in life than reading and responding to every single incoming message. (On a related note: I’m sorry if I haven’t answered your email!)

4. Scarcity is a lie. Back in the early Nineties, email etiquette was a big deal. You were supposed to quote a certain way, format your messages a certain way, and above all: not use signatures with more than three lines. Everything else was considered wasteful, and I vividly remember people emailing long rants to discussion groups whenever someone dared to add four-line ASCII art. The main argument was that all that extra data would clog the pipes and slow down the Internet. I’ve heard that argument many times since, with people warning of MP3 downloads, BitTorrent, Netflix (s NFLX) and live video. And of course, some of those things can cause problems under certain circumstances, especially once we are talking mobile. But in the long run, all of this talk will sound as silly as those rants against slightly longer email signatures.

5. Email rocks. I don’t care how much you moan and how long it takes you to empty your inbox every day (see above). The fact that I can reach people all the way around the globe in a few seconds, without needing to know which service or device they’re using to read my message is still mind-blowingly awesome. That alone outweighs all the downsides of email, of which there are plenty. And there are days when all the spam, viruses, phishing attempts, bounced emails, bad pitches, misunderstandings and other misgivings of the medium get on my nerves. But then I remember that for me, email has been key to not only make a living as a journalist but also make great friends around world. And all without building my own acoustic coupler.

@ sign image courtesy of Flickr user Horia Varlan. Inbox 99999 image courtesy of Flickr user xJason.Rogersx.