19. March 2013–
Is email on the way out – doomed to replacement by ever-shorter forms of instant messaging? Or, as Matthew Bostock argues, is it one of the last electronic mediums actually able to forge an emotional connection?
I love email. I do. There's something endearing about having a person contact me directly. Sure, they could have gone through Twitter or Facebook, but knowing that they've taken the time to craft a lengthy message and probably researched who I am and what makes me tick too - is something special. I talk to a ton of people on Facebook and Twitter every day, most of whom I can't even remember. Without the 140 character limit and short-form nature of certain social networks imposed on it, email usually buffers me into conversation. I've made some great friends via my inbox.
It makes me sad that people want email to change or disappear
A push to replace it has been bubbling away on the corners of the web for quite some time, presumably down to the fact that it has pretty much stayed the same since its inception. Things like Twitter and Facebook have accelerated in growth in ways we couldn't have imagined, with 61 per cent of internet users actively using them for communication. And with smartphones on the rise too, we're even looking at ways to completely rethink how we construct text for this small-screened, hyper-attentive digital culture we're now in.
And this, I fear, is why many are beginning to bemoan email. As Gentry Underwood writes for Techcrunch:
"We are all getting better about being concise. In the olden days, all we could compare email to were physical letters. Today we send instant messages, texts, tweets, and other short form communications to one another. More and more of us understand the value of short messages and that’s starting to change our rules about socially acceptable correspondence."
But email was never meant to work this way, and it's unlikely it ever will. The problem with short messages is that they're easily forgettable. Getting to the point is fine, but as the old saying goes, people won't necessarily remember what they read, but will remember how it made them feel. And if you want to contact a complete stranger on the other side of the globe, making an emotional connection with them will probably do you some good if you want a reply.
We're sending ever-shorter messages to try and cut through the noise; noise we've constructed ourselves by continually adding and using different communication channels. But there's a big difference between things like social media and email, and we shouldn't lump them both together in the noise bin. Social media, for example, costs the US economy $650 billion a year. It's easy to dive onto Facebook and scour our news feeds for short nuggets of information, passively soaking it up without having to do anything actionable. With this in mind, it's no wonder that people don't want to devote ten minutes of their time reading an email.
But email is one of the last remaining ways to connect with other people on a deeper level. We can go into an infinite amount of depth on a given topic and we can speak frankly without broadcasting it to the world. As much as social media is a place for a lot of different stuff to sprout up at different times, email is not. It's rather focused, and can't acutely be labelled as noise at all. Sure, we get the odd piece of spam, but it's not a crippling amount.
There is a problem, and you're the solution
Perhaps the death of email is inching ever closer due to the fact that we get a lot of it. I mean, 144.8 billion is a lot. If we value email for its qualities in connecting people over deeper, more lengthy topics, we do need to address this to filter out the good stuff. But limiting its contents, for example, will never work. We all have to put some elbow grease in to making it happen. There are tons of tips out there to help us do this. There are even companies like Mailbox and Hello devoted to helping us organise the wheat from the chaff.
Email isn't necessarily broken or invalid, it's our way of thinking about it that is. We're trying to impose functions on it that simply don't make sense, and we've forgotten what it means to take time out and put some thought into what we're trying to say. With the help of labelling, archiving, and apps like Mailbox, it will get better. But I hope it will never disappear, because I'd take email over hitting retweet or like buttons any day.