The Washington Post

Remembering the birth — and death — of ‘electronic mail’ at one D.C. association

A column John Kelly wrote in 1987 for a magazine called Executive Update with his observations on an ill-conceived online product called GWSAE-Net. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

How close did I come to being the next Tim Berners-Lee or Steve Case? Not very. Still, I like to think that, in my own way, I was a technological visionary. I may not have invented the World Wide Web, but early on I saw what a pain in the butt it was going to be to keep the thing running.

The year was 1985. I was in my first job out of college, in the publications department of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives. This was the nonprofit equivalent of a snake swallowing its own tail: an association of people who ran associations. It was a place with a long name, an unwieldy acronym and an “only in Washington” sort of vibe.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Computers had already been invented, of course (we had penicillin, telephones and the internal combustion engine, too!), but at first I rarely had access to one. I’d schedule time on a communal word processor to write press releases, work on the text for membership brochures and write articles for the monthly magazine, Executive Update.

When members of the small staff did finally start getting PCs, they weren’t capable of much. “Street view,” for example, entailed walking out of the building and looking down the street. But I felt very grown up: My own (work) computer! At age 23!

What does an association of people who run associations do? We helped people run their associations better, with educational programs and publications. We also organized “familiarization tours,” all-expenses-paid trips to convention cities for meeting planners. (Lovely boondoggles those were. Half the people who went on them had no intention of bringing their conventions there but wanted to be wined and dined by the burghers of Palm Springs or Tucson.)

In December 1985, GWSAE launched something called GWSAE-Net, which was described as “a new electronic mail and data base system that offers members a variety of applications.”

It’s easy to lampoon that early language — ha ha! Those people were so dumb they called it “electronic mail” — but remember, we were making it up as we went along. And the description was misleading. GWSAE-Net was supposed to be more than just what we think of today as e-mail. I quote:

“Presently, GWSAE plans to provide on-line job listings, legislative updates, tax notes, financial tips, meeting notes and announcements, highlights of association news, data on association trends and ratios, as well as a question and answer board.”

Doesn’t that sound fun? The problem was, I was the guy who was supposed to push all that content onto GWSAE-Net — while still doing my regular job.

The thing was a bust. Members complained that when they went online there wasn’t much there. Even I wondered how much value there was in paying to read on your computer the articles that were in the GWSAE magazine that people had just received. (That was about the only thing I could be depended on to upload.)

After 18 months we put GWSAE-Net out of its misery, and mine.

In 1987 I decided to leave the association of people who run associations and try my hand at freelance writing. Before I left I penned a memo for my boss on the GWSAE-Net experience. It was reprinted in the association’s magazine. “Hopefully,” I wrote, “one failure will beget many successes.”

Among my recommendations for a successful Web site (well, that’s what we’d call it today):

“Have a hook. For any electronic mail system to succeed, its information must be indispensable and available only through the electronic mail system.”

“Update it frequently. The most-touted benefit of electronic mail is its literal immediacy. Messages sent on it arrive now. This cutting edge timeliness can be dulled when information is allowed to languish on the system. If an association has one bulletin board that is reserved for the latest information, it must change daily.”

“Porn, kittens and photos of your dessert. That’s what people want to see on their computers.”

No, I didn’t include that last one. I confess I failed to foresee our digital future.

I hedged my bets at the end of my manifesto, concluding wishy-washily: “The jury is still out on associations and electronic mail. Currently most associations don’t use it — and those who do have had tough going before eventual success. Inevitably, all associations will need to consider it and we should be prepared. Widespread use of electronic mail gets closer with every passing day.”

Well, I was right about that, anyway.

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