Where Have All the Emails Gone?

Where Have All the Emails Gone?

By Gene Wilburn

Things come and go in the computer world. Recently I’ve heard the term “post-browser era” to describe the way we use the internet, accessing the net via apps on our phones, tablets, and media players, rather than from Firefox, Chrome, Safari, or whatever Microsoft is offering at the moment. I don’t mind this at all. I use apps on my iPad for Facebook, Google News, Flickr, and Gmail, switching over to a browser when needed. I watch Netflix and YouTube via apps on my Apple TV. Even so, I never thought we’d drift into a “post-email era.”

Email, one of the earliest services developed for the internet, has been my primary communications medium with friends for years. Getting an email address on the internet was once a rite of passage — if you had one, you were part of something big, worldwide big. If you were in early you used character-based email programs like mutt, elm, or pine, or, if you were really geeky, emacs. If you were on a communications system you might use the email programs from AOL or Compuserve. From early days these “apps” provided ways to organize emails into folders so you could move things from your inbox and store them for later reference.

Later, as graphical interfaces became popular, there were email client options like the lovely Eudora, the workaday Thunderbird, the unexciting Mac Mail, and the deplorable Microsoft Outlook.

As the web grew, browser-side email clients like Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo Mail became popular. I still use Gmail to this day, and access it either through a browser or through the Gmail app on my iPad. And local email clients such as Mac Mail, Outlook, and Thunderbird can be configured as front ends to the webmail services.

The thing is, I have conversations going back to the early 90s in my email archives. Decades worth of correspondence. It provides me with a kind of conversation diary of what we were doing when and where, and what we all thought of it. In the mid-90s there were a lot of conversations about setting up the Maplepost and Cdnfolk listservers and how to deal with Novell network issues. I was helping people set up web sites, and I was corresponding with musicians and promoters as I was putting together the book Northern Journey: A Guide to Canadian Folk Music on CD. I was in contact with various computer magazine editors about writing articles for them. My email archive contains an enormous amount of personal history.

Is there such a thing as personal history in things like Apple’s Messages or Facebook’s Messenger? Kind of, sort of, maybe, but not really. And do you have any way to organize discussions? Will it even be there in ten years?

Don’t get me wrong. Messaging is great for quick messages to someone waiting for you — “The train is running late” sort of thing. But I suspect we’ve lost a valuable methodology by switching from email to messaging. The irony is that email is still there, as good as ever, and the world is largely ignoring it for personal communications.

It makes me pine for the days of pine.