Adventures in Email

Last year, 1.9 billion emailers sent 107 TRILLION emails, according to web monitoring service Royal Pingdom.

That’s 1,900,000,00 emailers sending 107,000,000,000,000 emails.

  • 294 billion – Average number of email messages per day
  • 25 billion – Number of sent tweets on Twitter in 2010
  • 89.1% – Share of emails that were spam (?)

1971: First email message over ARPANET

It soon became obvious that the ARPANET was becoming a human communication medium with very important advantages over normal U.S. mail and over telephone calls. One of the advantages of the message systems over letter mail was that, in an ARPANET message, one could write tersely and type imperfectly, even to an older person in a superior position and even to a person one did not know very well, and the recipient took no offense. The formality and perfection that most people expect in a typed letter did not become associated with network messages, probably because the network was so much faster, so much more like the telephone.

–       J.C.R. Licklider, Albert Vezza, Applications of Information Networks, Proc of the IEEE, 66(11), Nov 1978.


1993-4 Commercial email begins

Over the decades, email has become more formal:

Email Is A Push Technology

Email is delivered to the recipient so they don’t have to work to get it — they just open their Inbox and there it is.

Technologies are sometimes labeled push or pull as described below:

  • Pull. These technologies require the user to actively go and retrieve the information. A library, the Web, and the Usenet newsgroups are pull technologies, requiring active participation of a human being to retrieve the information.
  • Push. These technologies deliver information to the user so all they have to do is receive it.  Newspapers, radio, television, and email are push technologies.

One of the reasons email has been such a big success is because it is a push technology. The person that sends the email writes it, then POP3 and SMTP transmit it, and all the recipient has to do is open his email program and double-click on the email to read it.

An advantage of push technologies is their ease of use — they require a minimum of effort on the part of the recipient, which greatly supports adoption because they get used more often. Partly because of this feature, the use of email has greatly outstripped all other Internet applications since its creation, even after the explosive development of the Web.

Email Waits For You

Email is particularly convenient because it is asynchronous; it waits for you and fits into your schedule instead of demanding that you structure your activities to synchronize with those you communicate with.

For example, an email recipient doesn’t have to be available when you compose and send an email—you can send it at the time that is most convenient to you. Similarly, you don’t have to be available or even connected to the Internet when someone else sends you email—it waits on your server until you log in and download it when most convenient to you.

Email provides the convenience that voice mail later provided for telephones—except that voice mail is more ephemeral, cannot be conveniently edited, and is usually accompanied by a preference to talk to the other party in real time. With email you know that the medium is inherently asynchronous, so you tend to write down all the information the addressee needs so they can respond when they are able.


Email Has The Power Of One-To-Many

You can send an email to several people in one simple action. Communications can be divided into four types depending on the number of parties participating in the information transfer: (1) one-to-one, (2) one-to-many, (3) many-to-one, and (4) many-to-many.

Each type of communication has its own attributes and strengths. For example, the typical phone call is one-to-one, and the typical meeting is many-to-many. Email is the most successful one-to-many technology, with respect to both sending and receiving:

  • Sending. You can send an email to more than one person at a time, for example to everyone in your family, or to a group of friends.
  • Receiving. You can receive information that has been mailed to more than one person, for example an announcement sent to hundreds of people on a mailing list.

The key advantage of this one-to-many communication is efficiency, since instead of sending emails individually, you can save large amounts of time by sending one email to several people at once.

Similarly, when you receive an email from an Internet mailing list you are getting information that would probably be impractical to receive any other way, since most organizations don’t have the time or resources to send out paper based notices individually to hundreds or even thousands of people.


Email Is Almost Free

Effective January 27, 2006, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a customer service representative.

- Western Union.

Email text takes up very little storage space or network bandwidth and so is very inexpensive.

Email is by far the most inexpensive form of communication across global distances. You can send email to anyone in the world, no matter how far away, at no extra cost to you. Use of regular paper mail, telephone, or telegram (while they existed) to communicate the same information would take much longer, and be much more expensive.

Based on a very conservative (inflated) cost of $10 a gigabyte for Internet bandwidth, the table below shows that it would take 50 thousand emails to cost $1 in bandwidth transfer. That is why the many choices for email-only accounts are so inexpensive. In comparison, web surfing uses many times more bandwidth.  [These figures are way out of date.  It’s far cheaper now.]

Some of this material is adapted from


About John Heckathorn

These are my teaching sites for Hawaii Pacific University
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