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Here’s what proper e-mail etiquette looked like in 1982

A lot has changed in how we use e-mail. (Juana Arias/The Washington Post, 1997 photo)

Getting e-mails from businesses or politicians is incredibly common today. But it wasn’t always like that. An MIT paper from 1982 explained how users should use ARPAnet, the academic research network that preceded the Internet. We’ve come a long way in 32 years:

Sending electronic mail over the ARPAnet for commercial profit or political purposes is both anti-social and illegal. By sending such messages, you can offend many people, and it is possible to get MIT in serious trouble with the Government agencies which manage the ARPAnet.

It is considered illegal to use the ARPAnet for anything which is not in direct support of Government business. At the AI lab, we use the network to talk to other researchers about all kinds of things. For example, personal messages to other ARPAnet subscribers (for example, to arrange a get-together or check and say a friendly hello) are generally not considered harmful. This is one of the ways in which we adapt the network environment to our community. It is very clear that without that sort of freedom, the network could not have evolved to its current point of technical and social sophistication.

It sounds drastic, a ban on commercial and political use of e-mail. But  it’s important to remember just how young the digital world was then. ARPAnet had been created for scientific and research purposes, and e-mail was seen as a superfluous usage. ARPAnet was small enough that a book could actually be published with the names, addresses and telephone numbers of every user. E-mail wasn’t expected to take over the world.

“People liked it, they thought it was nice, but nobody imagined it was going to be the explosion of excitement and interest that it became. So it was a surprise to everybody, that it was a big hit,” said Frank Heart, a key player in the development of ARPAnet.

Access to personal computers was also totally different. The original Macintosh wasn’t released until almost two years after these guidelines were published. We’ve undergone huge changes since then. While the rules governing it have changed, e-mail remains a constant.

As Jason Hirschhorn, who publishes the popular Media ReDef e-mail newsletter recently told the New York Times: “E-mail is a 40-year-old technology that is not going away for very good reasons — it’s the cockroach of the Internet.”

(Via Michael Hendrix)

Related reading: A history of e-mail: Collaboration, innovation and the birth of a system

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.



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Matt McFarland · July 9, 2014

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