Why do we “email” the way we do?

What’s behind the unwritten rules like saying someone's name when you already know them?

"Hey Jackie, are you ready for the meeting this afternoon? -Sabrina"
"Hi Sabrina, yes just finishing up a few slides! -Jackie"

Is it informal (or rude) to start the email without addressing them?

What even is formal emailing?

In order to really understand what’s behind this, we have to look at some evolutions:

  • The technology at the foundation of our digital communication,
  • How it's enabled new behaviors, and
  • How our writing has evolved as a result of these changes.

If you haven't researched how modern email came to be, it's a good starting point (and why we're here for)!

Before email became mainstream in the dot-com boom of the 1990s, you would simply make a phone call or, maybe, send a letter.

But now in 2021, calling someone is likely met with "why are you calling me?"

How did this massive shift in culture happen?

The Beginning

Email was invented in 1971 (that’s right...email turns 50 in 2021 🎂).

The inventor, an MIT graduate named Ray Tomlinson, put the first electronic mail (email) application into ARPANET "because it seemed like a neat idea".

Ray Tomlinson (Source: BBC)

ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was the predecessor to what became the modern internet (or, as they called it in the 90’s, “the world-wide web”).

Calling it "world-wide" was ironic because internet usage didn't expand much outside of the United States and Western Europe until 2002.

The original email was not like it is today.

The email address was simply <firstname>@<network>, there were no subject lines, there were no replies.

Is this why we start every email with "Hi <firstname>"? (and no, we're not talking about a mail merge)

In 1977 the email format became standardized:

Sender Line ("From"):
Subject Line:
Receive Line ("To"):
Email Message:

Now, 50 years later, email is essentially unchanged.

Email Creates New Behaviors

In 1978 American computer scientists J.C.R Licklider and Albert Vezza published "Applications of Information Networks", stating:

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.

Even in the beginning of email, people were noticing early changes in how we wrote and shifts in what was culturally acceptable.

Email was seen as more conversational and quick: you could get to your point without extra introduction paragraphs. Likewise, in responses, the writer could continue the email thread without formally restating the prompt.

Email would go on to become the digital substitute for the handwritten letter, and these early "unwritten rules" are still in place today.

Email Starts to Mature

In the 1980s the primary users of email were government and military officials, students, and professors. It wasn't the next decade that email would begin to take the general public by storm.

With the rise of the consumer internet in the 1990s, made accessible by companies like AOL, Netscape, and the like, email became more commonplace.

AOL (Source: 20k.org)

Still, computers were expensive and not everyone had one. Email's distribution was still growing, and the experience was much more limited than it is today.

Soon, the main players in email became Hotmail and Yahoo! mail. Storage was limited and users had to manually delete old messages from their inbox.

If they didn't, they could run out of space and miss an important email.

As with most technologies, early scarcity and technological limitations limited the widespread adoption of email.

By the late 1990s, Yahoo mail had about 12 million active users and Hotmail had 30 million.

Compared to today – with billions of people sending emails – email was then 30 years old and still in its infancy.

April Fools, Google

On April 1st 2004 email was disrupted forever when Google launched Gmail.

Gmail's main differentiator was including 1GB of storage for free.

By comparison, Hotmail only allowed 2MB of storage.

Today, Gmail has over 1.5 billion users.

Gmail Interface (Source: UX Planet)

People were shocked. They thought it was an April Fools prank (which Google is known for).

In response, Hotmail increased their storage to 250MB: still just a quarter of what Google offered.

Gmail was invite-only, and soon internet forums began circulating invites: the rest is history.

Storage Wars

While Gmails competitors began increasing storage in response, storage space alone wasn't the only value proposition that Google had.

Instead, it's what the storage allowed the user to do: search.

With the increase in storage, users no longer ran out of space. Previously they would need to delete emails to free up room for new emails to come in.

Now users could type in keywords and search for emails they had previously sent or received. This was when consumers began to realize how easy and helpful email really could be.

Still, Google was invite-only while Yahoo! and Hotmail were open and maintained dominant market positions.

Like Hotmail, Yahoo! also increased its storage: to 100MB, then 1GB, then unlimited.

Mobile Matters

By 2007 Gmail had launched for free for anyone who wanted an account. Email began to be used for both personal and business communications.

Over the next 10 years, the use of email continued to skyrocket.

This shift toward personal emails was the foundation that led email to become less formal, less professional, and include more casual writing.

Also in 2007, email launched on mobile and Gmail was the default account option on many apps.

When Blackberry smartphones were released in 2003, texting was already fairly normalized. With the original 180 character text-limit, people began to get creative in how they sent written notes.

BlackBerry Porsche Design 9981
Photo by Thai Nguyen / Unsplash

Texting expanded the popularity of common internet shorthand, like LOL and emoticons. The space limit of texting forced users to convey thoughts concisely and display emotion in new ways.

Still, this shorthand rarely carried over to email.

With no space limitations and the look-and-feel of a word processor, users felt comfortable writing longer emails.

The Dust Settles

Microsoft Outlook and Gmail are the two most popular email services in modern day. Outlook is primarily used by those in government, business, and education, and Gmail users are mostly comprised of the average consumer.

From time-to-time you'll also see a holdout still with their Yahoo!, Hotmail, or AOL email address: but this is increasingly less common.

Like Outlook, Gmail also offers an option for businesses. While Outlook has the majority share of large and enterprises businesses, Gmail is more heavily used by startups and small to medium sized businesses.

Young caucasian woman on leather couch working at a laptop while browsing her phone
Photo by Maxim Ilyahov / Unsplash

Over the past 50 years the evolution of email has taken many twists-and-turns. From originally being used only in professional settings, to becoming standard in casual communication, to nearly everyone having and using one or more email addresses on a daily basis.

What has not changed until recently is how users write in emails. There are many holdout "traditions" that have lingered since the early days of formal letter writing, for example starting an email with "Dear".

The mobile revolution, move toward more casual communication, and prevalence of writing posts and captions for social media has now begun to make its way to email.

Casual is the new Formal

In 2021 it's not as uncommon to receive email from a decorated academic or industry professional that uses internet shorthand like "LMK" instead of "let me know".

Today this is becoming normal because it is how people communicate in other digital realms.

Email is beginning to take the form of text messaging: simple, concise, and using abbreviations and emojis to display thoughts or emotions.

Not only are users receiving more emails than ever (with some receiving hundreds per day), they're also 8-times more likely to open the email on their phone.

In order to be efficient, and because of the smaller keyboard, it is now more common and acceptable to write casually in email.

If an email is short it is easier to read and reply to: it's more likely to receive a response. By contrast, longer emails are shown to have lower response rates.

In most situations, formal email writing isn't necessary anymore. Writing an email without the traditional greetings such as “Dear ___” and closings such as “Sincerely ____” is acceptable.

With these evolved characteristics becoming the “norm” we see communication in a business setting starting to mirror communication in a casual setting. In many businesses you can email your boss the same way you'd email your parents.

The Future of Email

As Natural Language Processing and Artificial Intelligence continue to grow and shape everything we do, more innovations are happening in email.

Gmail (and others, like Grammarly) now includes features that automatically check your email for spelling, grammar, and other clarity mistakes.

Gmail also includes a feature that enables a user to reply to an email with just one tap: it predicts what your response to the email will be.

Typically these one-click responses are very casual, almost like a text message. It's a subtle example of the current state and future trend of email writing.

Similar to texting, we also now see a trend where writers will add "lol" or exclamation points to remove or add serious tones.

In addition to one-click-responses, Gmail also predicts what you are writing and can finish your sentence for you. You simply push a button.

Deep learning models like OpenAI's GPT-3 are becoming more proficient at generating human-like text and will continue to drive features like autocomplete forward.

Quick-Response Suggestions in Gmail are casual and have the tone of a text message.

AI Writes Emails

Other companies like Otherside, Flowrite, and Lavender are pushing the boundaries further in applying NLP and AI to email.

All three companies are building technology that will write your emails for you.

Simply give the machine a few instructions and bullet-point details and the software will construct an email automatically using AI.

Lavender's Email Writing AI

However, this push toward more automation and more AI risks pushing us away from the emotional intelligence and thoughtfulness that is inherent in human communication.

Lavender started with a mission to help users write emails that were both effective and thoughtful, and to do it faster.

Lavender analyzes emails for dozens of emotions, tones, and sentiments, and makes recommendations to make emails more impactful.

The goal is to help users get a positive reply.

As we continue to build our Email Writing AI, CATIE, we remain focused on applying the psychology and neuroscience that is at the core of our company.

Lavender was built to optimize for psychological principles that tend to result in positive communication and replies.

AI that writes emails for you has an undeniable opportunity to increase the efficiency and productivity of users, and Lavender is building it with a deep focus on emotional intelligence in business environments.

As we think about building the future of email, can you imagine a world where two email AIs have an entire conversation with each other: scheduling a meeting, negotiating a deal, screening a hire?

While the history of email was a race toward platform dominance and adoption, the future of email is focused on the intelligent applications of AI

This, and more, is what is in store for the future of email.

Lavender is a browser extension that helps users write better emails, faster. Learn more at www.trylavender.com or install for free.

Want early access to Lavender's Email Writing AI, CATIE? Join the Waitlist