Email isn't the problem

I find it odd that so many folks complain about email. Email’s ruining their lives. They wish email had never been invented. Etc.

Say you get 100 email messages in a day. Would you rather have 100 phone calls? The problem isn’t the 100 messages but the 100 new responsibilities represented by the email messages. Email spam is a annoying, but phone spam (i.e. telemarketing) is worse.

There are alternatives to email that work well in their niche. RSS subscriptions beat email newsletters. Instant messaging beats email for quick interaction. Twitter beats email for keeping up with loquacious friends. But I don’t understand those who say “email is dead.”

14 thoughts on “Email isn't the problem

  1. A lot of people haven’t developed the skills to deal with the responsibility of email’s power. Managing an inbox demands discipline, and failing that results in inboxes that do more to slow you down than to enhance productivity. I consistently run into co-workers who have email inboxes containing hundreds of messages, and their ability to consistently respond and execute suffers.

    While still relatively primitive, tools like Gmail (instant archive with the “y” button, and its other useful key commands) and Outlook (while not as easy in search or archiving, its ability to drag a message to the Calendar button to create an easy reminder is exceptionally helpful) are already providing a decent framework to simplify email use.

    You have to clear the decks and set reminders for the high priority tasks – your laundry doesn’t do itself.

  2. I agree email isn’t the problem. But I’d quibble with your email/phone analogy. I think that’s at least part of the issue: it’s unlikely that you would be receiving 100 calls a day. Or, if you were, then I’d predict your email rate to be even higher. Essentially, the fire-and-forget nature of email, coupled with the ease of type-and-hit-send, makes it more attractive in many cases than a phone call.

    I dislike spam, but I think the annoyance with email is largely because people receive a lot of requests and queries (from their bosses, colleagues, loved ones, friends, etc) and don’t know how to cover all the bases. It’s overwhelming. I think it’s settling though — people are getting better at managing things, but social expectations are also changing: not everything needs a reply, if you really need it done quick you’ll call or write again, etc.

    But, yes to your point, I don’t see email as dead either.

  3. Good points, Ali. The “fire-and-forget” nature is especially a problem when it’s not symmetric. Maybe the people who are most overwhelmed by email are the most conscientious. Maybe they take the email they receive more seriously than the senders do. I fall into that sometimes.

  4. One of my ex-colleague who works in a government laboratory has an interesting coping mechanism: he routinely ignores most emails (even “important ones”). He claims that many emails who appear to require a follow-up, really do not.

    For example, your boss requests something… maybe ignoring him could be the right strategy. This sounds weird, but in some organizational contexts, it could actually be a great approach.

    I should point out that the ex-colleague in question is considered highly influential and successful within the organization.

  5. I’m one who struggles with email: I briefly got my Inbox to under 200 last week, and that was exciting indeed. And I have plenty of emails filed.

    The problem that I run into isn’t with emails that are requests — those I can take care of and then delete. The ones I don’t delete usually fall into one of two categories. First are emails from people I know (typically friends or former students that I hear from only occasionally) that don’t require an immediate response, but where I feel like it’s my turn to contact them, especially if I don’t normally write to them so I can’t count on that happening automatically. The other kinds of emails are ones that aren’t high priority but I think, “I should do something about that.” and then I keep it in my Inbox as a reminder. Because I know that I *will* look through my Inbox regularly, whereas with other folders I only look at them if I’m looking something up — great for storing information, but not great as a reminder.

    But still, like the papers on my desk, they do become part of the scenery so I’m trying to adopt more efficient habits. And 230 emails, my current count, is still way better than it’s been in the past.

  6. The problem, IMO, is that instead of using the right communication channel for the information, everything has gotten shoved into email.

    Want periodic updates on something? Use RSS.
    Want a short back-and-forth? Use IM or the phone if it has to be real-time, or twitter if asynchrony is OK.
    Want to send someone a longer message for them to read and think about? OK, now use email, but even still if you want a dialog, you’re better off writing a blog post and using the comments below to keep everything in context and possibly threaded.

    Almost every case where collaboration is done by emailing files back and forth could be better done via shared docs, a wiki, or CVS. The only reason it doesn’t happen this way is because email is the one thing that everybody knows how to do, so it gets re-purposed for all kinds of stuff it’s really bad for.

    So I think that email is in fact a problem, but it’s a symptom, not the cause. The root cause is people not knowing how to use the right tool for the job. I mean, how efficient would a auto mechanic be if he had one screwdriver and one wrench that he had to constantly bend or shape to fit the screw or socket? I think if we could somehow get some hard numbers on how much this abhorrent inefficiency is costing people, we might realize significant cost savings teaching people how to use IM and wikis and file sharing than to keep on bending email to suit all our needs just because we don’t want to learn something new.

    If anyone’s got some data on this, I’d love to see it.

  7. @Mr. Gunn: I think you’re right that everything gets shoved into email because it’s the lowest common denominator.

    Someone (Peter Drucker?) said that a new technology has to be 10x better than its predecessor before it will take over. Maybe the alternatives to email are better but not 10x better. Maybe email is just good enough that a large number of people feel no need to try something else.

  8. Well, we’re not looking for a replacement but rather a partitioning, so the improvement would be between email for everything and the right communication for the right channel. An improvement in IM won’t make it a replacement for email, right? In those terms, I think we could get close to that 10x number, but again, I don’t know what data would be appropriate to look at for this.

    Now, I’ve seen what people are doing with Google Wave, and it’s impressive enough that it could be a total game-changer.

  9. hi,

    I have had some success using GTDInbox for gmail.

    And check out Chandler now (www.chandlerproject.org) .

    It helps by taking the opposite tack – ie use an email like tool for handling all items – apointments, actions…

    Perversely this works because the problem is email is used for the wrong things, but the right things are not integrated.
    It is a little wave like.

    I guess gwave will win because it has google behind it, we shall see.

    Dave

  10. I find people who complain about email simply can’t read well, or don’t like to read. Twitter is largely inane and unusable because of the character limit; while I think brevity is ideal, it is not worth sacrificing readability. If you can’t digest a few paragraphs in a minute or so, then you simply need to learn to read with comprehension.

    As a corollary, if you’re only capable of expressing a single idea at a time, then you need to improve your writing skills. Not every email needs to be a 5-paragraph essay, but the endless back-and-forth nature to simple emails is what induces headache. I much prefer getting a longer, detailed response, which affords me the benefit of referencing it on a future date if I need to.

    Where email goes wrong is when it’s used as a conversational tool, or something that approaches a phone call. If you’re emailing single thoughts back and forth, then pick up the phone or use twitter. If you’re trying to confer knowledge or information that the person may need to digest a bit before responding, compose more than a few sentences and you’ll see your inbox start to shrink. At the least, it will become more meaningful. Oh, and watch all the CCing.

  11. I realize an old thread but my two cents:

    Email is abused and unusable in a lot of cases. For example people email you a link to a file on a network share for something you aren’t currently involved in. A few months go by and then they ask you to work on that. They don’t resend the location of the instructions file and of course the subject of their email wasn’t descriptive (or you don’t know who it was that sent that message 3 months ago). You are stuck stopping what you are doing and searching for 10 minutes to find the email with the link to what you need.

    Rather than having a logical structure to network shares, or a central repository of facts/discussions like a blog or wiki people fire emails everywhere and assume people will remember that email in perpetuity.

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