Rethinking email


I used to be the guy that sent out tons of emails - to friends, coworkers, mailing lists, you name it. I wrote long thoughtful messages, clicked the send key and off it went. And after a short while the people on the other end of these missives would just simply start to ignore them. I didn't care though, it was an outlet for my thoughts, which was nice. Then I discovered blogging and channeled my energies that way instead, and it worked so well I decided that email was dead. RSS was a much better way to communicate in the background, blogs and other online databases were a much more organized way of communicating that there was no way email would compete. If I needed to communicate with someone more directly, I'll use SMS or IM, otherwise I'd use better tools than email to capture and distribute ideas and info. Yep, email isn't long for this world, I thought.

That was a few years ago, and email hasn't died. In fact, if anything with the advent of the blackberry and other services, email is just getting more and more prevalent. Hmm. Time for a rethink. (Which is what I've been doing since the beginning of the year).

I like email from the perspective that it is indeed a blank slate. You have a whole page which you can write and format how you choose. There's some standards in how responses are formatted, but other than that, you can use email how you see fit. You can write long, write short, attach documents, respond to every message or use it as a read-only way to keep up with what's going on. Some people use email almost like IM - they send a series of one-sentence responses in quick succession. Others use it more like blog posts, writing up long detailed, formatted emails that need a lot of time to read and consider. It's a completely flexible communication medium.

I hate email for exactly this flexability. Each message that comes in is another set of decisions you have to make, "Do I know this person or not? Does this person want something? What? Do I want to respond or not? Do I have to respond? Do I respond with a lot of detail or not? Do I save this somewhere special or not?" And because people use email so differently, and the types of messages vary so widely, your inbox becomes this morasss - the different cross points between all the messages makes it insanely difficult to organize - at least for me.

Also, I dislike email because even though it should be it's not actually a data repository, but a stream of data instead. It all depends on timing on whether your message is really received by the recipients or not. How many times have I asked someone, "Hey, did you see that email I sent you about such-and-such topic last week?" and the answer is "Oh, yeah... I remember that. I'll have to find it." Which means that the person got the email while thinking or doing something else, wasn't ready for it, put it aside for later and it promptly vanished into the communication stream. There's a million email solutions out there to try to help this - everything from tagging, to heuristic analysis, to auto-folders, etc. I'm not sure it'll ever really be solved - the core platform is just too wide open. Some people seem to be able to manage the stream (you know who they are) but most people don't, I think.

And that's the main point, really. We're all struggling with the same system - it may not be the best tool, but it's the one we all have. Email is here to stay. Accepting that just about anything can come into your inbox is a good way for me to start -it's definitely helped the frustration level that I've had in the past with the volume and variety of email I get. Also accepting that for other people email is a way of life, so not really using email to its fullest really limits your ability to communicate with them.

So I'm rethinking email. I know it may sound nutty, but I think all technologists go through this cycle - we look for the next technology to embrace, and move towards it as much as we can. Sometimes it works out and you're ahead of the game, and sometimes you have to backtrack and realize that for whatever reason, what you were doing before is better. Someday we'll have better organized, Lotus Notes-like form systems to communicate with each other or we'll have intelligent agents that can filter our mail more efficiently, removing spam and categorizing your inbox automatically, reminding you when you missed something, and helping you keep track of all the different people, topics and priorities that you may encounter.

For now though, I'm accepting email for what it is and making another effort to figure out how other people use it, and how I can best make it work myself. Wish me luck. ;-)


< Previous         Next >