Email is a tool that we just can’t quit

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What do emails smell like? My visit to a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum suggests they give off a woody scent with a strong hint of juniper. Or perhaps, as Christian Widlic, the force behind the immersive display, explains: “They smell clean and fresh.”

The aim, apparently, is to “evoke clarity” and “transform mood and mindset”. Of course, this may not be what we all associate with emails on a regular basis.

You may wonder why I’m trying to sniff an email, but it’s all part of the interactive show, which visitors enter through a giant yellow envelope. It continues with the history of the medium (now over 50 years old), an email personality test (I was, thankfully, a “professional”) and even a thinking room where you are invited to reflect on email’s future.

“We have this obsession with email and wanted to share it with everyone”, says Widlic. This is perhaps not surprising given he is also creative director of email marketing platform company Intuit MailChimp, sponsor of the show. But while the Design Museum Exhibit is provocatively named “Email is Dead”, it is more a reminder of the tool’s staying power.

This includes its history. Although there are still (heated) arguments about who actually invented email, it is definitely true that Queen Elizabeth II was the first head of state to send one, using Arpanet (a very early public computer network) to do so at an event in 1976.

As head of FT newsletters, you might not be surprised to learn that I believe email will last long into the future. But the data backs me up: there are now over 4.3bn email users in the world, a figure predicted to reach 4.7bn by 2026, while the revenue driven by email marketing is forecast to reach £8.7bn by the end of this year. Emails may not be shiny and new, but reliable and old can still be useful. Who do you know who doesn’t use email?

Of course, like any worker in their fifties, there have been some slip-ups along the way. Inboxes fill up easily, some messages might be better as phone-calls, and the “reply all” button is a disaster just waiting to happen. You may remember the havoc-wreaking email accidentally sent to all NHS England staff back in 2016. It happened on a Monday morning, but that doesn’t really excuse copying in over 840,000 colleagues — many who then followed suit in their complaints.

And this isn’t the only email no-no. Always check the send address carefully. Only a few months ago, it was revealed that the UK Ministry of Defence had to launch an investigation after emails containing classified information were sent to Mali, instead of the Pentagon. Officials had accidentally left out a crucial “i,” meaning the messages went to Mali’s ‘.ML’ domain instead of the US military’s ‘.MIL.’

But, despite the mishaps, no real replacement has emerged. Email has not only usurped letters as the main means of communicating news — it is also a source of education and inspiration, a way to promote events and even a tool for verifying your identity. Plus, its archives live on in your inbox, remaining eminently searchable.

Newsletters are just one way in which email has evolved. I’m obviously a fan — the format builds relationships between readers and writers, and can quickly become a habit.

Take The Mill. This Manchester-based project, which began in 2020 because its founder, Joshi Herrmann, was disappointed by the lack of depth in regional journalism, has just been valued at £1.75mn and received investment from a group including Mark Thompson, the new head of CNN. “I moved into newsletters because it was so cheap and easy,” says Herrmann. “It’s been an eye-opener how powerful they are for interaction and how close they get you to an audience.”

How long this will last remains up for debate. Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram are certainly on the rise among younger generations — reply-all chains do not figure large in their lives. But email’s success lies in the seamless way it has embedded itself in every life stage: a school address is followed in quick succession by a university one, and then a professional one. In other words, email isn’t dead. It’s everywhere.

sarah.ebner@ft.com

Email is Dead opens on September 28 and runs until October 22

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