Improving email has little to do with email

In recent times there have been a few attempts at ‘fixing’ or ‘reimagining’ email. This article on Medium is just the latest that has caught my eye. I keep believing email doesn’t need any fixing — that the problem is the user, not the medium per se.

Email is the most versatile tool for communication. Versatile in the sense that it gives the user a lot of freedom of movement. Just to make a few examples: there are virtually no limits to the length of a message, you can attach pretty much any kind of file to an email message, and if you use it to broadcast messages to more than one recipient, you can specify exactly how many people can see those messages. Email is free from contexts and constraints thanks to its nature of general-purposeness. It’s really the digital equivalent of using pen and paper to communicate.

The huge impact social networks and instant messaging are having on human online interaction has changed the way we communicate, with regard to both form and substance. We have come to expect shorter reaction times, more conciseness, more promptness when it comes to respond to a message, and — in a subtler way — we have come to expect more efficiency. We tend to get annoyed when someone is slow at getting back at us, when their response is more verbose and rambling, in other words when it doesn’t come in the way we expect.

Email is seen as an old, obsolete way of communicating because it allows people to be slow, verbose, rambling, non-efficient and generally more ‘random’ in the way they express themselves. These attempts at ‘fixing’ email all want to change the way email works (socially and æsthetically; I’m not talking about protocols):

  • with regard to writing messages, the aim appears to be to basically reduce email to another, simplified, challenge/response social-network-flavoured communication tool;
  • with regard to email management, the aim appears to be to transform email into a productivity tool, similar to a task manager or a to-do app.

 

Many of these efforts, to me, look misguided. It’s like wanting to retrofit a hammer so that it can work like a screwdriver, when you could actually go and use a screwdriver — or a hammer, according to what you want to accomplish. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with email, and while it is a versatile communication tool, it may not be the right one for what you’re trying to accomplish. With all the different communication tools we have in our digital arsenals today, I don’t see the point in wanting to change one at all costs to make it work like others that are already available. This shoehorning is largely unnecessary.

One of the reasons why I’ve never really complained about the state of my email management is because I always try to pre-emptively suggest my correspondents what’s the best way to get in touch with me according to what they expect from our interaction. Quick comments or suggestions? Twitter or App.net. (Let me say that again: App.net is also great for private exchanges, since private messages can be up to 2048 characters long, thus allowing for a thoughtful, detailed communication.) Up for a chat? We can arrange one. Services like Facebook, Flickr, Instagram and Tumblr provide members with various intercommunication options (I’m not on Facebook, though). Then there are messaging platforms and apps: iMessage, Telegram, WhatsApp, Line, WeChat, etc. (I’m a happy Telegram customer, by the way). If all else fails, or if the nature of your message demands it, or if the kind of response you expect from me demands it, you are welcome to write me an email.

In the end it’s the same old story, really: use the best tool for the job at hand. In the article on Medium I mentioned at the beginning, the author writes:

Most people don’t know how to write an efficient email and so what could have been one sentence ends up in a vomit of thoughts left for you to dissect.

I don’t know how we’re going to have people write better emails.

In my opinion, the best course of action in this case is to tell people not to write you an email if you don’t want or don’t have the time to dissect their ramblings. Suggest others to use communication tools that have certain constraints in place by design, or that make it easier for you to handle exchanges and communications. I know it’s not always possible to do this, especially when someone new sends you an email out of the blue, but things do get more manageable when your interlocutors begin to understand the best (or quickest) way to receive a response from you.

And when it’s time to write to someone, take these same factors into account and ask yourself whether email is really the most effective choice. If what you have to say is little more than a question or request, consider trying other channels, especially if the person you’re contacting is active on social networks. I’ve had people whose email response time is typically 7-10 days reply to me almost immediately via Twitter or App.net.

‘Email bankruptcy’ is not a failure of the medium, but an indicator that something’s wrong with how you manage email communications. All these attempts at fixing email want to make email more manageable by altering the workflow in a way or another, and many of the approaches I’ve seen so far have left me with the impression that the email process in the end gets complicated rather than simplified. Sure, approaching email messages as if they were tasks in a to-do application may be a good solution for the triaging stage, but at the end of the day you still have to deal with the messages themselves. There is no way around that. Just like a to-do app can’t carry out the tasks for you.

I think that, ultimately, it’s a matter of reconsidering certain habits instead of trying to find new ways to force a square peg into a round hole.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!