This is the first part of a four-part series on the current e-mail landscape and Inbox placement. Let’s start with a quick look back at how e-mail has developed and grown over the last several decades.
The roots of e-mail lead back to the 1960s when users of massive mainframe computers could send messages to each other using a simple program called SNDMSG. Users or administrators of massive mainframe computers sent these basic “e-mails” to other users of the same system. When you logged into your account, the message would be waiting for you.
In the early 1970s, MIT grad Ray Tomlinson blew the dust off of SNDMSG in order to facilitate file sharing and messaging between different networks. Put another way, this was the birth of the “@” sign: rather than simply sending an e-mail to the local user “nbibbins,” you could send one somewhere else like we do today – email@example.com. Until the late 1980s, e-mail was largely confined to academic and government settings, along with a handful of astute hackers who figured out how to piggyback on existing systems.
During this time, an important landmark also occurred. The world’s first SPAM message was sent in 1978 by Gary Thuerk on behalf of Digital Equipment Corporation. He sent a bulk message to a whopping 393 ARPANET users, advertising the state-of-the-art DECSYSTEM 20 (depicted below).
For context, ARPANET was a U.S. Department of Defense- sponsored “Internet.” Its users were un-accustomed to receiving anything but work-related messages from their colleagues. Translation: they were irritated by the encroachment on their privacy – just as we are today. When interviewed, Mr. Thuerk stated that he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, and sales were indeed generated by the advertisement.
Spam and legitimate e-mail continued to grow in tandem throughout the 1990s. E-mail users realized how easy it was to stay in touch with friends and colleagues, and marketers quickly learned how fast and cheap it was to send bulk advertising. In some cases the marketers were “legitimate,” even if their tactics were not, but in many cases the messages were entirely bogus: pornography, scams, attempts to gather personal information, etc.
Hotmail is a good illustration of the growth of e-mail: Launched privately in 1996 for about $300,000, Hotmail was an early web-based e-mail service. By the time Microsoft plunked down $400 million to purchase the company a year later, Hotmail already had about eight million users. Today the number stands at over 350 million – nearly the population of the United States. Worldwide the total number of e-mail accounts is estimated at 3.1 billion, with roughly 294 billion e-mails sent across the Internet every day. However, according to estimates by the big Inbox Providers and large spam filter companies, at least 90% of that traffic is unwanted SPAM, leaving a narrow margin for legitimate marketers to present their goods and services via e-mail.
Next: What Changed with CAN-SPAM?
Click below to read the other articles in this series by Neil Bibbins:
A Brief History of E-mail