I collaborate with the Italian edition of iCreate magazine, and among other things, I write a column called Appunti (in English, it would be Clipboard). I’ve been receiving some emails, recently, written by intelligent interlocutors who wanted to know more about me and with a couple of them I had the pleasure to engage in a bit of email back-and-forth. You know, a good old written correspondence, a conversation.
At one point, since we were talking about social networks, one of them asked me which social communication medium I find most effective.
I replied: email.
Although I could not see his face, it was clear by the way he reacted that my answer had taken him aback. In his response, he asked me if I was just being provocative for the sake of it. No, I was not and am not. I already gave him a more detailed answer, but I thought it was worth writing about that here as well.
In recent times, email has become the main complaint from many tech bloggers. Some declared email bankruptcy, some stated that email as a medium is broken, not aging well and needs an overhaul, a complete rethinking, and so on and so forth. But I agree with Khoi Vinh, who wrote, back in September:
Don’t Break What’s Not Broken
In spite of that, I still think email works better than just about any other communication medium out there. It’s not just that it’s ubiquitous and universally understood; or that I fully own my email address and its domain; or that I can access my email from any number of clients, desktop or Web or mobile or tablet; or that I really can answer it in my own sweet time. For me, the bottom line is that email works great. I don’t have any serious trouble keeping up with it and, so long as I’m not working with insane people who send poisonous diatribes over email, I kind of enjoy it.
Email is not broken, if you ask me. It could be better, for sure, but I don’t think it requires the drastic changes that so many other people seem to believe are necessary. And I certainly don’t need messaging intermediaries entering the picture. These alternatives just fracture what is for me a pretty well consolidated experience — if you want to reach me, my email address is pretty easy to find and I, in turn, know the one place I should turn to check to see if you’ve reached me.
When I say that email is, for me, the most effective means to a social network, the first obvious objection people make is that there are other, more convenient platforms, and the usual suspects get promptly outlined: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, you name it. And perhaps it’s true, their interfaces are rather straightforward, you generally get the hang of them quickly, and they all give you a certain reach. This last aspect is key. All these social networks are horizontal. They are like enormous places to hang where each user has their own place to broadcast their persona, their views, the things they share, etc. to the Internet wilderness, and other people may decide to form aggregates around this user, for the most varied reasons: they know him/her in real life, they know him/her from other forums, they recognise him/her as that guy/girl with that interesting blog or podcast, they don’t know him/her but like the style and the way he/she broadcasts his/her opinions, and so on.
Meaningful things can develop from this kind of interaction, I won’t deny that also because it would contradict my own experience, but with people you had no previous knowledge of (most of your ‘followers’), the depth of your connection and interaction is usually shallow. Sometimes on Twitter I have the distinct feeling it’s like entering a very crowded pub filled with people you half-know, and while you’re making your way to the counter, you overhear interchanges and bits of conversations that briefly catch your interest and you stop for a little while to add your quick observations on the matter.
Facebook, Twitter, Google+ et al., all have mechanisms to focus on deeper, more private exchanges, but at that point they’re no better than the good old email.
Email is vertical. There is no broadcast, no egotism. But there can be good, private, deep conversations. Even among a small group of people. I have had intense email correspondences over the years. I have used email to build projects, to arrange meetings and outings, to send notifications… To communicate in what I think has been an effective manner.
Email today is perceived as ‘problematic’ because it isn’t felt as being convenient or ‘fast’ as other social media. The cynic in me thinks that people are more interested in other social media exactly because they provide the means to broadcast their selves more publicly and more conveniently, and to engage in shallower interactions since, you know, we’re all living busy lives and can’t be bothered to form really deep, meaningful interactions (or friendships altogether) with people who live so far away. Under this light, social networks are more like ‘individualistic networks in a shared virtual place’.
Back to my surprised interlocutor, I told him: the proof of email’s effectiveness is that we’re having this very exchange. You got in touch with me through the magazine and through my website. You showed up out of the blue, but writing thoughtful things in an elaborate, relaxed message. Email itself invited you to express yourself that way, without forcing constraints related to space or content. I chose to respond accordingly, and the conversation went on. Perhaps after this, we’ll never cross paths again, or perhaps we’ll contact each other in the future for one reason or another, but whatever the case, we’ve had this correspondence, which has been anything but superficial.
I know: email is not a social network platform, per se. And I know email alone doesn’t really have reach. The obvious advantage of the usual social networks is that you’re more exposed and ‘discoverable’, so it may be easier to find kindred spirits there. In fact, I’m not saying email should replace social networks, I’m simply advocating email as an effective and rather straightforward medium to communicate with other people on a deeper level than limiting yourself to ‘interactions’ through Twitter or Facebook or whatever. It takes a little effort from the parts involved, for sure, but in my experience that is often worthwhile and rewarding in the medium-long term.