Why Is Email So Complicated? Part #1: We Don't Even Know What It Is

If you're looking for simplicity, it helps to start out with some well-defined terms.  Where email is concerned, however, we seem to have skipped that step.  We all think we know what email is, yet our impressions differ in subtle ways that inevitably create complexity.

Isn't it just sending asynchronous messages over a network?

The first time I encountered email was in 1978, at Grinnell College, in Iowa.  Grinnell was very advanced, possessing a computer all its own.  It was accessible only from a single terminal room, with a glass wall that let us see the front of the computer itself, the size of multiple refrigerators.

One day, a friend showed me a new program he had gotten off a software tape.  It let you send asynchronous messages -- "email" -- to any other user of the computer.  Since the computer could only be used from one room, "email" was about as useful as -- but less flexible than -- a truly exciting new invention, the Post-It note.  With no inkling that I would devote my career to this technology, I quickly dismissed email as a useless toy.

A third of a century later, in preparing this essay, I found that Wikipedia takes over 6000 words just to summarize "email," with lots of links to more detailed articles.  The first sentence defines email as "a method of exchanging digital messages from an author to one or more recipients."  (The second sentence tells us that "modern" email uses computer networks -- something my 1978 self would have found truly innovative.)

I like that definition, but I doubt that it corresponds to your intuition.  For starters, it means that fax and voice mail are email.  I think that's correct: nowadays they are often gatewayed to Internet mail, so that I receive both fax and voice mail in my email inbox.  So what's the difference between a fax going from one machine to another and a fax encoded as a MIME message for email transmission?  Formatting details, mostly.  Yet when people talk about email, they rarely seem to mean fax as well.

We've also seen, in recent months, some talk about the "death of email" -- generally in relation to increasing use of messaging facilities on social network sites.  But if you send a message to a fellow user of LinkedIn, or Facebook, how is that not an email message?   In a sense it is a throwback to the pre-Internet version of email, where there were many email "closed gardens" such as AOL and Compuserve, but it's certainly email by Wikipedia's definition.

All of this may sound like splitting hairs, but it's important.  Without a clear understanding of what we mean by email, we can't have a coherent discussion about claims that email is dead, or that email should be regulated by governments, or that email is more popular with some demographics than others.  And when a company sets its email policies, but doesn't apply them to fax or voice mail, what does that mean when a fax is gatewayed to email?  What if you use (as I do)  a machine that sends faxes to you as MIME-encapsulated PDF files?  Do your corporate email policies apply to every such fax?

I would claim that the only coherent way to think of email is inclusively:  it is, as Wikipedia says, the exchange of digital messages.  Its fundamental characteristics include the fact that the sender can't control the form in which the receiver views it, or what he does with it; that it requires no authentication; and that it creates network effects that raise its value exponentially with the number of connected users.  But as long as some people see it otherwise, the reality of our apples-and-oranges definitions will confuse and complicate every discussion we have about email, and everything interesting we try to extend it to do.