Nobody writes the emails that killed the letters anymore | Digital Transformation | Technology


Adriana Ponte-Guía, 46, says that when she and her ex-partner started fooling around, they did so by email with messages in which they pretended “to be 18th century characters.” In addition to mails of love, he maintained a regular digital correspondence with friends who were far away (also with the closest ones, but exchanges “less frequent and less extensive”). For a few years now, your inbox has hardly received personal emails anymore. “I think everything has been devastated by WhatsApp and instant messaging,” he says – of course – by email.

The arrival and expansion of email, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021, revolutionized the way we communicated with people far away. Suddenly writing letters was no longer necessary. The golden age of personal email can be traced by following the history of the penetration of the internet into homes, from the late 1990s to the revolution of the smartphones which started the iPhone in 2007.

In 2003, for example, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE), 25.2% of Spanish households had internet access (half of households had a computer). However, not having internet at home did not mean not connecting: 68.1% of young people aged 15 to 24 had connected at least once in the last three months. Whether it was from home, a library, the university or an internet café, many of these users sent emails to their friends through their accounts in services such as Hotmail, Microsoft’s email, which had six million users in Spain in 2004.

Hotmail email access portal in November 1998.
Hotmail email access portal in November 1998.hotmail

A few years earlier, in 1998, personal email communication starred in one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies of the moment, You have an email. Directed by Nora Ephron, in the movie Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks met in an AOL.com chat room and fell in love through email exchanges (not knowing, because they used nicks —The usernames of the time—, who knew each other in person and hated each other, as in all good romcom, name given to romantic comedies).

This ease of exchanging messages made many people switch from traditional letters to email. Now personal letters are somewhat marginal (according to the Household Panel of the National Markets and Competition Commission, during the second half of 2020, 75% of households did not receive any letter from a private individual, a percentage that has been growing over the year after year), but emails that in theory they were killed, they have also followed the same path.

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The instant messaging revolution

“Letters, emails and instant messaging serve the same function: communicate remotely, establish a co-presence, to maintain a correspondence with an infinite number of purposes ”, explains by email Elisenda Ardèvol, professor of Arts and Humanities Studies at the UOC. For this function, each communication method supersedes the previous one. “The letter that is sent by post is a disadvantage compared to email, and this is at a disadvantage compared to the immediacy of instant messaging,” explains the expert.

That’s what 36-year-old Lorena Durán thinks happened. She wrote a lot of emails with friends, especially in the first decade of the 21st century. Now he still sends some, but “many times you send that mail and they do not see it or it falls into a void or they respond to you on WhatsApp ”, he says by phone. “I think we have become accustomed to the immediacy of everything, to the double check [las dos marcas de la plataforma que indica que el mensaje ha sido leído]”, Says the interviewee. For her part, Adriana Ponte-Guía adds that “it is a circular issue: when responding quickly, the bombardment of messages is much more frequent and demanding, which forces you to respond in the same way. That valuable and extensive time to better think what you say and to whom you say it is no longer possible, it does not exist ”, he points out.

Ardèvol also indicates that instant messaging “is much more accessible to everyone than email or writing a letter, which is much more formal”. The question of formality is another key. Juana Rubio-Romero, PhD in Philosophy, professor at the University of Nebrija and specialist in social research and communication, has done much research on the use of WhatsApp in young people and explains that they do not use email to talk because they see it as “excessively formal ”, Something relegated to academic or administrative issues. In fact, he points out that he believes that generation Z has taken a step further and has moved from WhatsApp to Instagram, because they see that the instant messaging application is very formal for them.

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Cristina Vela Delfa, professor of the Spanish Language department at the Faculty of Social, Legal and Communication Sciences of the University of Valladolid and author of the book also has an influence on formality. Communication by email. Discursive analysis of digital correspondence (Iberoamericana Vervuert, 2021). “When compared to other non-digital texts, email leans towards informality; on the other hand, compared to other digital texts, it is the most formal of them all ”, he explains.

This does not mean that it is not possible to be informal by email, where you can add up to emojis, but little by little its use has shifted towards that register. But we use few emojis in the mails, among other things, for a usability issue, explains Agnese Sampietro, PhD in Linguistics from the University of Valencia, postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Jaume I and author of a thesis on emoticons and emojis. “If I type an email with my computer and enter emojis It is not as easy as in WhatsApp, because I will not do it ”. In addition, he adds that we are creatures of habit and that, as we are not used to using the emojis in emails, we don’t. “Furthermore, WhatsApp messages are shorter, more like dialogue, while emails tend to be longer and more like written genres, such as letters,” he explains.

Finally, Elisenda Ardèvol also adds that instant messaging makes us feel always connected and “we do not feel the need to write to our loved ones even if they are far away, since we know that we can keep track of their daily activity through the mobile phone ”.

Do we miss out on leaving emails personal?

Anyone who’s had a lot of personal email correspondence knows that if they didn’t delete their archive or lost their account, they can access those old emails with a simple search. That record, more complicated in WhatsApp, is one of the things that Lorena Durán likes the most. “I keep with a lot of affection those folders emails. It makes me very funny to read them and see how we saw things and how we see them now, ”he says. She says she still prefers to type those longer texts on a computer keyboard than on a phone. “I think it also generates less invasion. I feel more comfortable writing a emailIt seems more personal to me ”, he indicates.

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What Adriana Ponte-Guide misses the most of those mails, which in his case began to disappear in 2009 (year in which WhatsApp was also born), is the depth. “They talked about feelings, situations were described, opinions were asked about the facts of the families, the countries, the cultures of those who were far away,” he recalls. He also especially valued that “they responded with time, thinking each word and each phrase, intuiting how the other would take it.”

Cristina Vela Delfa believes that, in part, we have that feeling of depth and pause in contrast to the maelstrom of the rest of our digital lives. “Given the explosion and interactivity of social networks, the feeling of intimacy generated by the tranquility of the home, of the personal computer, from which a good part of the emails are written, in the face of massive access to social networks through the telephone, strengthens its reflective and intimate dimension ”, he reflects.

However, all this nostalgia is only possible for those who lived that golden age of email and filled it with mails personal. The youngest continue to write messages of love, but in other ways. Where are the love letters now? Juana Rubio-Romero admits that she doesn’t know, but she has an intuition. “I think on Instagram or WhatsApp. I don’t think they’re going to send a love letter for mail. The mail it is an absolutely formal means of communication ”, he insists. “It is not conversational. Neither love nor anything, email is an anachronism for them ”.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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