Email's humble beginnings and the birth of tracking

Monday, December 10, 2018

Email’s humble beginnings and the birth of tracking pixels
Len Shneyder,

It should come as no surprise to everyone reading this that email is the oldest, most venerable and original marketing channel. Ray Tomlinson sent the first email in 1972 as a test message to himself. The email traveled from one computer to another sitting right beside it at a lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today, email is knocking on the door of 50 while spam, as we know it, or as it’s come to be known, is ominously celebrating its 40th birthday.

The beautiful thing about the internet is that it doesn’t forget. A simple Google search will give you the name of Gary Thuerk as the progenitor of spam. In truth, Gary Thuerk worked in marketing and sales for the now defunct Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). In 1978, Gary wanted to announce a new product — printing out invitations and information about the product was slow, costly and laborious, so he had the brilliant idea that he could notify everyone on ARPANET (the predecessor of the internet when it was still a Defense Department project) about the availability of the DEC 20.

When Thuerk sent this email, it caused an instant uproar — the first case of legitimately breaking the internet! Storage was minuscule back then and the massive email with a distribution list of 400 some odd recipients filled the hard disks of some of its recipients. Thuerk was admonished for this stunt (yes, this was considered a stunt back then as no one had done something like this) and told that if he did it again he would be barred from ARPANET — after all, it wasn’t a public resource back then; it was the mainstay of the military and researchers.

The chicken or the egg?

Email started as a means of collaboration with the ability to easily bridge, at the speed of electrons, vast distances. Researchers working on complex problems could quickly discuss them through email distribution lists and reach consensus. The invention of email almost begs the question: was the internet built to create email or was email invented to create the internet? The two are inextricably linked. According to A Brief History of the Internet by the Internet Society,

“Email has been a significant factor in all areas of the Internet, and that is certainly true in the development of protocol specifications, technical standards, and Internet engineering. The very early RFCs often presented a set of ideas developed by the researchers at one location to the rest of the community. After email came into use, the authorship pattern changed – RFCs were presented by joint authors with common view independent of their locations. The use of specialized email mailing lists has been long used in the development of protocol specifications, and continues to be an important tool.”

Suffice it to say, the progenitors of email never imagined the technology to be used in the manner and scale it’s being used today.
How did we get here?

The question of how email went from a novel idea to reach a couple hundred users to the most prolific digital communications channel on the planet touching 75% of the U.S. population at least once per month and 90% of internet users is a story that can be told in pictures, starting with a picture of how the internet grew in terms of users:

The blue line represents the volume of internet users and the orange line represents percent of the global population.

The picture of the internet in terms of a user base is a good starting point. However, it doesn’t tell the entire story of email as we know it today. In December of 1995, the internet was populated by around 16,000,000 users, according to Internet World Stats, making it smaller than the population of Tokyo. Email, bulletin board systems, some early peer-to-peer chat applications, IRC — these were the means by which people communicated on the internet. However, the story of email’s rise really begins in 1993.

The earliest implementations of email and email readers were text-based. Email clients such as PINE and MUD (both of which persist to this day, with the latter available as an app) were the only means of reading, writing and sending email available to the ‘netizens’ of the early internet. In 1993-94, Phillip Hallam Baker of CERN, which today is better known as the world’s largest particle collider and where the Higgs boson was identified, was the birthplace of webmail as we know it.

The creation of the webmail client had two significant impacts on email. First, email became accessible to anyone on the internet using a browser (Hotmail was born in 1996, shortly after webmail became a standard). Second, email became picture rich. Because webmail was accessible through a browser and browsers are graphical interfaces to view web content written in HTML, email became alive and subject to the creative whims of burgeoning designers who were remaking the digital landscape with color, GIFs, JPEGs and other embellishments.

The advent of HTML didn’t just signal a more colorful user experience; it meant that email could become much more instrumented and provide telemetry back to the sender. Tracking pixels or web beacons became possible when images and hyperlinks could be inserted into the bodies of messages. HTML ushered in the birth of the now ubiquitous 1×1 tracking pixel. Although machine level read receipts for accepted messages were part of the SMTP spec, it’s the ability for a marketer to tell when an email was opened that eventually gave rise to concepts and tools around driving greater engagement.

The days of simply reading email were over — the new email experience was both colorful and held much greater utility for savvy marketers that recognized it as a means of communication for brands and advertising. This was the genesis for email’s modern-day usage in marketing.