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Which meant that for millions of people, the experience of going online, from the very beginning, was fundamentally about checking your email. Email volume appears to be growing, still, but its share of overall electronic communication has shrunk.By 1997, electronic mail crept into workplaces and across college campuses. If there’s any clue from the behavior of teenagers as to the direction of a given technology, email appears, well, doomed.Which means: The first email had to be printed out in order to be read.Tomlinson’s the one who selected the @ symbol for email addresses, and it stuck—despite a brief period in the 1980s when some service providers experimented with exclamation points and percent signs instead.“If you don’t have an Internet address,” a then-37-year-old New Jersey man told in 1994, referring to email, “it marks you as a nobody, as someone who’s over 40.It’s reaching the point that you get socially ostracized.”America Online, the company that helped millions of Americans explore the web for the first time, was built around the experience of checking mail. Since 1999, Internet use has increased more than tenfold—with the global online population going from about 280 million people to more than 3 billion people, according to Internet Live Stats.A simpler method, he thought, would be address messages to individuals.
As Internet adoption steadily climbed, email became its cultural touchstone, and the inbox became a phenomenon.
“There may be a machine that has some memory that was hooked up at the time, but you’d never be able to find it.”Back then, Tomlinson was developing applications and protocols for the ARPANET, the early network that today’s Internet is based on.* (Today, he’s a principal scientist at BBN Technologies, a research and development arm of the defense giant Raytheon.) In 1971, the idea that anyone other than Tomlinson’s coworkers would want to use email was out of the question. “Getting ahold of people, especially those in other time zones, was very difficult,” Tomlinson said.
“If they didn't answer the telephone, if you were lucky, maybe they had a secretary—or an answering service if they were really important.”In building apps for the ARPANET, Tomlinson and his colleagues had talked about some sort of mailbox protocol.
Email works just the way it’s supposed to, and better than it used to, but people seem to hate it more than ever.
Over the course of about half a century, email went from being obscure and specialized, to mega-popular and beloved, to derided and barely tolerated.