small medium large xlarge

Shady Illuminations

Going Postal

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  John discovers that email is broken and offers no solutions.  

Email is like oxygen—it is essential to sustain life on this planet, and yet too much of it makes one dizzy. —Alexander Sidorkin

“Going postal” is poised for a comeback. Soon it won’t be just disgruntled employees of an outsourced government service who are freaking out. Email is trying its best to turn us all into psycho postal workers. Even the strongest of you are bending under the strain. Eventually you’re going to break.

Because we’re drowning in unwanted emails, threatened by scams and malicious code hidden in emails, and unable to manage the flood of incoming messages. Email is broken. You can confirm this in the usual way: by counting the number of hits you get for “fix email.”

Somebody Ought to Fix This

It’s time to fix email.

I’m not talking about fixing your default email account after Facebook silently switches it to you at them dot com. I’m talking here about fixing email itself. The technology. The ubiquitous aspect of life in century 21.

It’s not that nobody has tried to fix email. To reinvent it. AOL tried. Google tried several times. It’s just that the attempts to fix email are all themselves broken.

David Pogue says he wants to fix email, but he really means he wants people to be better at it. Presumably the people sending him emails. Well, he’s a popular guy. I’m sure he gets a lot of crappy email from people who are total numbskulls. And since he has a platform to talk to the world, why not use it to chastise his fan base and nag them to send him less sucky emails?

But while that might be a good plan for a popular industry columnist, the strategy does not scale to the rest of us. Anyway, it probably won’t work even for Pogue because he’s trying to fix people. Very hard. It’s much easier to fix technology. Or the protocols and ceremony thereof.

(By the way, back when Apple was using the phrase “the rest of us,” did you flash on an image of Ronald Reagan with no legs every time you heard it? No? I guess it was just me, then.)

Paul Graham’s a smart guy. He would like to fix email. He says email is a todo list. He’s crazy. And I say that as a person who sends himself emails late at night reminding his morning self about things to do. But email isn’t a to-do list. If other people can email items into your to-do list, you don’t have an email problem, your life just sucks.

This person apparently thinks email isn’t complicated enough. These people think it’s a platform to build on. So if you have the app you can read the message? So broken. This person wants corporate email to work like the post office. Except that she wants more control over who can email her. But email isn't a newsgroup, it’s an open communication channel; it’s mail. The discovery aspect of it is crucial.

One thing that doesn’t fix email is wholesale blocking. Blocking email from people you know you don’t want to hear from ever again, sure, that’s smart. But blocking email from people you have no idea whether you want to hear from is like—old school reference here, people under 30 may have trouble following this—ripping the phone out of the wall because you don’t like to hear it ringing. You do that only because the system is broken and you’re desperate. You’re in fact breaking email yourself. You’re ripping out the discovery element of the tool. You’re hiding from the world. And while it sounds good to me, people tell me that’s a bad thing.

I Don’t Do Solutions

So how do we fix email? Beats me. I don’t do solutions. I specialize in problems. They’re easier to find.

I mean, I guess I could propose replacing the “letter in an envelope” metaphor with the “postcard” metaphor. If we have no privacy anyway, why not eliminate the whole time-consuming “opening the email” step? Turn the subject line into the message and require anything longer to be packaged up in a separate Dropboxed file. The point being to make it less easy to write long emails. Then people might think about them longer, improve the content, decide not to send dumb and unnecessary emails.

How about if it were impossible to archive emails? Once you open an email you have to do something with it, because it poofs away when you close it. And disappears after a few days even if unopened?

Probably all bad ideas. I told you I don’t do solutions. But something else I don’t do is change my behavior unless forced. If the trouble with email is a people problem, caused by the behavior of both the senders and receivers of email, then fixing email depends on changing their behavior.

Technology should discourage bad email behavior. Just don’t ask me how.

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. If even after reading this you just have to, you can send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.