30 years of email….
As someone who has been online since the mid 1980s, I often think about the amount of data I have generated. In terms of the absolute number of files though – the bulk of it has to be in email.
When I first got online I would visit various bulletin board systems (BBS), each with their own phone number and special system that I would dial into with a phone line and a modem. If I thought something was worth saving I would copy it into a running “plain text” log file I had created. In fact I still have many of these files even today. They are weird bits of scraps of humor or contact information or even emails or instant messages from days gone by. Even then I knew that there was no archiving from a BBS so what I saved was up to me. Not that I was even thinking about archiving, just saving a scrap here or there.
My real Internet experience started with the Cleveland Freenet and more commercial services like American Online (AOL) and Compuserve that really put the BBS out of business. People use AOL like a punchline these days, much like they do a flip-phone. But at the time they were cutting edge – it is only when you cling to things after their day is done that they become humorous. (Anybody need an install CD?)
Freenet had their own email system but as it was related to Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) you soon realized how client – server things were becoming. Even with AOL you could choose to have your local software create copies of all of your emails on the local drive.
The first email I saved in my CWRU email was a Happy Birthday message from one of my fraternity brothers. Dates 1/26/1990 it says – Happy 18th birthday.
From that day forward, unless it was absolute SPAM, I would endeavor to keep all of my email. The problem is that over the years I had many email accounts. By this point I had ditched Compuserve but I had an active presence on AOL (with multiple accounts – because we all did). I had my CWRU email account and my main email account was from a little company called Earthlink. Over the years they bought and sold other companies and I still have that email address (and pay a nominal monthly fee). Of course I also had a Yahoo account and as time passed I also moved to Google. I never was one for Prodigy and while I had a Hotmail email address I never used it. Ameritech was my Internet Service Provider and they gave me an ameritech.net ID but that also eventually rolled back into Yahoo.
So lets summarize: CWRU email, AOL, Yahoo, Earthlink, and Google.
Yeah that’s about right.
Now Earthlink was your standard email service. If you left too much on the server you would get into trouble so I had to use a client side program like Eudora or Thunderbird or Outlook Express. I always avoided using regular Outlook as I knew it would create these monster data files that would get corrupted.
Once I used an email client I would configure it so that it would check as much as possible – so CWRU, Earthlink, and even Yahoo would all be in one place. At various times I tried to get it to interact with AOL but the AOL client was for a while superior (for accessing AOL).
I was very fearful of the cloud. I didn’t want to bifurcate my experiences or my datasets. When webmail first came out I would use it – but I would always run home and my sure that my archive would get a copy of everything. Changing computers was the worst as I would need to make sure I didn’t lose things along the way.
I was pretty good at sorting – not great – but I would sort friends and projects and things and especially mailing lists.
As I moved from client to client I would sometimes lose attachments. When I moved from Eudora to Outlook Express, all of my attachments became a folder and those files lived elsewhere on my system. I didn’t lose the files but they were no longer part of the emails themselves.
Outlook Express was interesting as it would create smaller blocks of data and the more I filtered the more blocks I would get. Smaller blocks are of course safer.
AOL would allow me to move around mail and mailboxes in a similar way. All roads led to my CWRU email and my Earthlink account. And as I stopped using AOL, the question was: how do I keep that data?
Eventually I found a third party software that allowed me to port the old AOL email into Outlook Express. That was really the end of my using AOL. I’m sure I still can log in but if you are trying to reach me there – good luck.
On a side note, I kept AOL running longer than expected because I setup my original Apple ID as an AOL ID. This was not firstname.lastname@example.org it was literally JUST jaredjared. So much got tangled by Apple and AOL in that system and many things got messed up and I had to repeat a lot of purchases and setup new Apple IDs. At one time both jaredjared and email@example.com were valid Apple IDs. Oy – the good old days. Every so often a remnant of that pops up on an old Apple device.
Slowly I am trying to put all my eggs in one basket, and its a local basket. Again this was days before cloud backup so I was making sure that on a regular basis I was saving these files on hard drives. And the data was getting bigger and bigger.
I was also trying different email clients. Which sorts better, which filters better, which forwards better? And with every different client was the delicate process of uplifting thousands of emails in hundreds of folders. These packages were never ready for me.
When the cloud hit – I was skeptical. I might like putting all of my eggs in one basket but I want it to be MY basket. Is Google gonna stick around? How will I protect my data?
When Outlook Express was killed, Microsoft moved to Windows Live Mail. At first I was going to go back to Eudora or Thunderbird, but then I discovered that Windows Live Mail stored all of the email in sorted folders of individual .EML files. EML files are plain text! So now I wouldn’t have to worry about large file corruption and I was in a standards based file format. Hooray!
Oh – but by now I have over 100,000 individual EML files. Windows hates thousands of little files. Also jump ahead a few years – so do cloud backup services.
At this point the university had moved our email into the Google environment and I was feeling better about Google. My primary email had been narrowed down to my CWRU email and my Google account and my forever linked to various things Earthlink account.
So why not do something idiotic? Instead of relying on the cloud – I tried downloading it. I’m not a complete idiot, I used webmail like everyone else, I just on a regular basis would try to make a download of the online mail to have all my data in a single place.
But these email clients are terrible. They don’t like big data dumps and they don’t search and sort very well. So anytime I tried to find an old email I would have to rely on a third party hard drive indexing system that had read in all of the plain text EML files. This is not efficient!
For the most part my email life can be divided into Pre and Post “The Cloud”. And it’s a pretty close division of around 15 years on either side.
I know I know. Who needs to read old email from the 1990s. Trust me – its more than just nostalgia – though some of it is nostalgia – some of my active freelance projects actually date to the mid 1980s!
The pandemic (of 2020) has given me a lot of time to play catch-up on certain work activities that I never do and a big one of them is file management. I’ve worked at the same job for over 25 years and have 10+ terabytes of data. (The organization of which is another blog article and yes it is all backed up in the cloud).
In my hunting through old folders I found some of those BBS log files. Stories, jokes, instant messages, emails and phone numbers from people long gone (and often without area codes).
And then I found my EML hoard.
With Windows Live Mail long dead, I would just open them via searching and the indexing client. When I changed computers last year I didn’t renew the indexing service which means the data was just sitting there.
What email client could I get that would allow me to search and sort them? I’m not going to add any more email. My AOL is dead, my Yahoo is dead, and my Earthlink forwards to my Google.
Mozilla Thunderbird to the rescue. Not only is it an active software package but people have authored all sorts of plugins for it.
So I set it up with no account (local only) and imported my old folders.
It didn’t take long for the 198,000 emails to load (my memory was that is was more like a quarter million but hey whatever).
Look at that I can see ALL my old email.
And then I had a really stupid thought.
Instead of trying to download from Google, could I send all of my email UP INTO the cloud?
Could I upload my hoard into Gmail and reunify my 30 years of email?
Kids, don’t try this at home.
It is in fact possible to have Thunderbird attach to your Google email. In fact if I wanted to I could download my entire Gmail account locally (which one day I might do). And then I made a folder in my Gmail called ZZZ and started dragging over the local folders into it.
You have to be careful. It is a slow process and if it “times out” I find it is best to rename the folder that died and to start again. I don’t delete the old folder because in Google they are really labels and not folders and you might have created unexpected connections. I would rather deal with duplicates than loss.
Many years ago two of my bosses were arguing about a project I was working on and who was supposed to pay for what when. In the middle of their finger pointing I pulled out emails from 8 months prior that resolved the situation. Both of them were shocked and said “Who keeps email for that long?” “I do.” “Why?” “Because of situations like this!”
I’m not that crazy anymore. When the email tells me there are snacks in the break-room, I delete it. I unsubscribe from unwanted lists and go back and delete things that just aren’t needed. I still have a hoard but its a better curated hoard.
I also have 12,000 unread emails in my inbox. I’m getting to those. That’s another blog entry. I’m getting there – every days I’m getting there.
But today I can say my email is all in one place.
Happy 18th birthday Jared.
As I write this I am 2 months away from my 49th birthday.