Email is the Ultimate Communication Boundary

Lauren Goode at Wired Magazine wrote a great piece that had my stomach in knots as I read it. She posits that, gasp, the boundaries between our instant messaging culture and what it used to be 25 years ago, when services like AOL Messenger existed, have degraded. She states those boundaries used to be clearer and, quite frankly, better for us.

In It’s Time to Bring Back the AIM Away Message, she almost hits the nail on the head. If you needed to step away from your AOL online account, you slapped up an Away message, or what we might call a “Status” these days. It allowed you to be online, but signal to everyone you weren’t totally available.

She makes the claim, on the one hand, that the Away message was a boundary, a healthy one, and I agree. But on the other hand, she makes a few remarks that, while relatively accurate about instant messaging, fail to make the case for the oldest and most popular protocol: email. She states that the AOL Away message was visible to potential senders before they messaged you (iOS Messages do tell other iOS Message senders if you have notifications turned off).

But here’s the thing: email is asynchronous by default. Everyone knows you might not answer, possibly for days, and they are – er, they have to be – okay with that, else why would they email you if they needed you to see it this minute? Email’s default is Away.

Lauren states that nothing like the AOL Away message exists in our modern messaging apps. Maybe she’s right. I try to avoid “modern messaging apps” like the plague, so I couldn’t rightly say if any have such a feature. But you’ll excuse me for thinking that email should be considered a “modern messaging app” in its own right and that email does indeed provide the boundaries that Lauren, like so many others, would like to reintroduce into their lives.

She does lightly touch on email twice in the article. I’m hesitant to criticize her on this, because she lovingly admits she is a communications curmudgeon.

She confesses late in the article that she has given up on her email inbox, only logging in to unsubscribe and mark others as spam. We’ve seen this before, especially with those who long ago sold their email soul to the e-commerce and marketing gods. What a shame. Guard your inbox like you guard your front door.

However, she also quotes a “tech CEO” who says he treats instant messaging like email. That’s a correct way to treat the cesspool that is modern-day instant messaging. I’ve already argued that instant messaging is no longer instant anyway, so why treat it as such?

But what’s the longer-term solution? We can’t actually go back to AOL Instant Messenger. It’s not a viable product.

But we can return to the beauty and power of email. It’s easy and it’s a better option than almost anything on the market. Here’s how:

Reply to your text messages (to all but your dearest loved ones) and write, “Slammed presently and want to get back with you. Will email you soon. I type faster on a big keyboard and can write more meaningfully when not distracted by the environment surrounding my mobile phone.” – Or words to that effect.

I can promise you that they will actually feel relieved in almost all cases. They will anticipate that email the way we used to anticipate snail mail letters from friends and family.

Sometimes I don’t even reply to the instant message. I just copy and paste it into an email draft, one of email’s superpowers, and later reply as if they had emailed it all along. If it’s the first time I’ve done it with a sender, I might preface the email with “Thought better to reply this way so I can give this its full consideration”. People appreciate it, and I suspect, appreciate it more than whatever half-witted reply I would have made via texting.

It’s to the point that a number of people in my circle (boy, I hate that expression: “people in my circle”) don’t even bother to text me. They just email – or send less messages altogether, something I rarely complain about.

If you think watching Netflix before bed is becoming an unhealthy habit (you’re right), instead write a short email to a friend who recently texted you, just as you might write a short personal letter back when you still knew how to handwrite. It’s fulfilling in a way that no text message can ever be.

Email is more powerful than any text messaging platform, and yet has built-in boundaries. And some of those boundaries are also the small amount of friction required to send email (which I called “fences” here).

I can’t quite make “boundaries” one of email’s superpowers, but the lack of boundaries is definitely a weakness on most all other modern-day messaging apps. I don’t know how many times I have to say it, but just use email.

How deliberate are your relationships?

As I increasingly ponder the beauty and wonder of email, such musings often transpose into thoughts on personal correspondence. Email is used for everything from transactional receipts for e-commerce purchases, newsletters, marketing salvos, password resets, and political donation solicitations. Certainly those amazing abilities pale in comparison to our collective use of email for personal and business correspondence.

If we’re being honest, we aren’t particularly excited to get emails from colleagues, but let’s also admit that email powers like that allow entire companies to power over one-third of the websites with a staff of 400+ scattered around the globe.

Still, it’s the personal correspondence by email that tickles our fancy and causes us to worry about losing our email archives. We won’t miss the password reset emails or even the e-commerce receipts, but emails from and to our friends and families – and even relative strangers on the internet – are what has the most value for us.

Email has largely replaced the written and mailed letter. We all love an actual letter from someone we care about. But it’s rare to get them, even at this time of year when families celebrate holidays and reach out to old friends.

For me, as like many of you, not only would it cost a small fortune to mail some of my friends (some are international), but some are difficult to mail, if at all. Some move with rapid frequency. Some don’t have access to reliable mail delivery. Some letters would take too long to arrive.

What’s additionally beautiful about email is how quickly a relationship can blossom by merely the written word, zipped across the internet. I’ve received nice emails at Just Use Email and have enjoyed some back and forth with people, all because of our shared interact and passion about email.

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes the following:

Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” … It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision – it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude.

The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis

In our digital age, the emphasis is on that last sentence, “And instantly”, for while such in-person connection is amazing, the world of email opens doors to humanity’s vastness. An idiosyncratic belief, found perhaps nowhere in your community, can be the foundation of a lifelong friendship when it’s exposed to the world. Reddit and similar forums provide this, but the best of those commonalities find their way off those platforms and onto email, at least to start.

As I think about email as a tool for personal correspondence, I think of its inherit friction. The same friction others complain about is the force that elevates the worthiness of the written word when sent by email, similar to the higher value of a mailed letter.

When we write an email, we are deliberate. We choose words more carefully. We compose paragraphs. We collect our own thoughts, perhaps forming and editing them as we type, and we then entice our reader to share our elations, trials, challenges, and minor and major successes. We entice them with our own beliefs, we share our advice, we give the gift of us through the written word.

Because of the superpowers of email, we feel confident it will reach its recipient, unmarred, fully intact, and available to them at their leisure, yet delivered instantly. Even if they’re sick, on vacation, have moved counties or countries, or several years have elapsed since we last wrote to them, we have assurance that email will be up to the task with aplomb.

Like writing a paper, a blog post, or a book, we write with deliberation, energy, effort, and determination. Yet unlike other mediums, email usually is just to one or a few persons. It’s personal; it’s meant to touch one person. Such email correspondence is not usually meant for large audiences.

What do you do when you get such an email, rife with love, affection, friendship, or warmth? Do you more closely salivate over each sentence, far more than you would a text message or a social media post? Do you think upon it for several days before beginning a reply? How much time elapses before a reply takes too long, before the reply is apologetic and stale? Do you feel guilty if you don’t reply with equal gusto?

In other words, are you deliberate to those who are deliberate to you? Do you make space and time to write emails? Do you try to reply on your phone? Or do you have a proper workstation that allows fast composing of emails such that you send them off regularly?

In a sense, email is not only something used in a good relationship; it is a good relationship itself. It is deliberate, thoughtful, caring, requires effort, some may save it even requires love or a form of love, and email, rightly done, is almost always appreciated, like a hug.

Call me sentimental on this point. When I recently learned that President John Adams exchanged over 1,000 letters with his wife Abigail, only half of which have ever been published, I found that stunning. She also wrote back, not considering his letters to be spam or to be too voluminous.

Would we come even close to this today? Even over a 40-year relationship, that’s an average of two letters a month – to the same person. No, we are too busy consuming mass media, mass entertainment, publishing updates on social media for 300+ so-called friends. We’ve no time to dedicate 20 minutes twice a month to just one person, even a romantic interest, and maintain that year after year.

It’s worth considering, at this time of year, how we spend our time, not just our in-person visits, but how we will spend our digital and keyboard time this coming new year.

I’m no saint, but it strikes me that time spent deliberately writing email is, like friendship and deliberation in relationships, is time that has deep value for both sender and recipient.

How to Plan Anything by Email Alone — and why it’s Faster

Aside from professional project management, planning and collaborating on personal things – like trips and vacations, family reunions, summer camp options for the kids, or even advice – is best done by email, not specialized collaborative software tools online.

Thousands of SaaS businesses want to convince you to use their system to “share and create”, to “plan and strategize”, or to “post and update” others with whatever you’re working on. Many of them are merely misguided. Some are outright hostile to email.

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Email Love Links – March 2023

It’s been some time since I’ve posted links by others extolling email or its underlying virtues. Sometimes folks inadvertently promote concepts or ideals of email, even though they might not be discussing email directly.

I will be trying to do this more frequently. So stay tuned for more, or subscribe to the Just Use Email RSS feed.

Let’s start with one I disagree with, despite my great admiration and appreciation for its author, Cal Newport.

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Email Is a Good Fence

The proverb “good fences make good neighbors”, often attributed to poet Robert Frost, is the perfect metaphor for the beauty of email as the primary, if not sole, asynchronous communication method in the digital age.

The origin of the phrase is not entirely clear. Interesting Literature states an earlier reference in 1640 from E. Rogers, who wrote “A good fence helpeth to keepe peace between neighbours; but let vs take heed that we make not a high stone wall, to keepe vs from meeting.”

That high stone wall might today by postal mail. For some, it might be a little too much friction, although I would argue that postal mail is the most classic and perfect of all written communication among friends (and neighbors). But for many, if we waited for that inevitable letter in the mail, we might never get one.

This, however, is the pedantic excuse of all text messengers. Those wired to their phone each day, pinging and tapping, sending and receiving, draining their dopamine to the point of fatigue, would argue that should they try instead to live by email alone, they would never hear back from their friends, families, and neighbors.

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Why Virtual Meetings may be the Death of Email

Some have been hoping, perhaps praying, for the death of email. Every “solution” has been tried, but none have prevailed.

Some claim email has even “brought them to tears” and that receiving email “is like getting stabbed”.

But despite the many doomed “save the world from email” companies that keep cropping up, there may be a more insidious threat to the 50-year legacy of email: virtual meetings.

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Slack is Disliked

Just when you thought it was safe to go into group messaging again, just when remote work seemingly guaranteed Slack a permanent fixture on the internet, just when Salesforce threw their weight and $27.7 billion dollars at Slack, now seems like the perfect time to reflect upon Slack and if it really is the savior of digital workplace communication.

Email is the all-time champion, and even today, would beat up Slack in the ring. After all, email has superpowers that Slack can only dream about.

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Gen Z will not ‘free’ us from email: A response to the NY Times article

Sigh. Here we go again. The New York Times used a slow news day to vent about email and hint that Generation Z will one day free us from email.

A fan of ‘Just Use Email’ told me about this article knowing it would ‘trigger’ me (to use a Gen Z word). It worked (ha). Thusly triggered, I’m now firing back. Pew-pew.

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One Sentence Email Tips

Writer Josh Spector published yesterday a collection of 40 one-sentence email tips. It’s worth your time to peruse if you’re a fan of just using email.

Normally, when I see articles giving ‘tips’ on how to use email better, I roll my eyes and start reading only to discover the same ol’ trite. The problem with most of those articles is that they subscribe to the notion that email is the bomb or that email is a time bomb.

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Email Newsletters are not the Savior of Email

In the past few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in email newsletters. Some are touting email newsletters as the great savior of email.

One theory is that it was related to the pandemic lockdowns and people simply wanting more information to absorb. With standard newsstands shutdown in big cities, email newsletters seemed to fill a void.

Another theory is that with Big Tech ‘cancelling’ certain types of information found on their websites, email newsletters were the way to get information that might be otherwise removed from social media sites. Email newsletters could be the counter-revolution.

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Basecamp’s Hey Email Service with Apple Mail (for free?)

Can’t Apple’s email do almost all of Basecamp’s new Hey email’s top 20 features?

The reason Hey’s email service caught my attention is that Basecamp specifically calls out Apple (among the other big email providers). I was a bit surprised when I read Hey’s Top 20 features.

The Hey Email service was started by long-time internet developers Jason Fried, a co-founder of project planning software Basecamp. He and his business partner, David Heinemeier Hansson (frequently referred to as DHH) have been in the news lately for some rather loud missteps about how they handled some workplace controversies. That’s not the point of this article; running a business is hard. The reason they get noticed is because they’ve written loudly themselves for many years on the “proper” way to do business, remote work, and other initiatives. They have contributed some good things to the conversation and, for such a small company, have a rather broad reach.

However, when I saw that they started a new company called “Hey” and that their main premise, much like Slack’s, is that “Email is broken” and that, of course, they were the latest ones to claim they had a fix for it (for your hard-earned dollars, of course), I started following their new service closely.

To be fair, a few features are unique to Hey. But are they worth $100/year?

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Instant Messaging is no longer ‘instant’

The concept of instant messaging, in its various forms, has been around since dialup days. Recall the scene in the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail when the two characters, Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly, respectively played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, suddenly realize they are both “online” at the same time and begin to use instant messaging.

In the early scenes, the two characters are pen pals, using America Online’s email to communicate under pseudonyms. Their emails are filled with thoughtful prose, captivating observations on their daily lives, and underneath the plain text, a hint of flirtation, despite them both being in committed relationships at the time.

However, a moment comes when Joe decides to breach protocol and, noticing Kathleen is also online at the same time, sends her an instant message. The look on Meg Ryan’s character says it all. She’s initially taken aback.

Suddenly, she can no longer write contemplatively and asyncronously, but is required to muster the courage to reply “in the moment”. He can see she is online! To ignore him, after all the emails have gone back and forth, would be rude.

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Dislikes about email are Questionable

Blogger Lars Wirzenius asked followers last year what they liked and disliked about email. He then summarized those email likes and dislikes here.

The dislikes about email were typical and, in my opinion, represent several myths about email that disgorge into modern discussions about productivity and communication.

These knee-jerk prima facie reactions to using email are not invalid entirely, but misunderstandings must be clarified. I’m not covering all of the dislikes people mentioned in his post as some were extreme edge cases or didn’t apply to the average Joe.

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Welcome to Just Use Email

If you haven’t already, read the About page to get a sense of what this website is about and what my purpose is in sharing it with you.

We have much to look forward to, but first let me say a hearty welcome for just stopping by.

I don’t have all the answers. But I hope to be able to inspire and motivate many to more purpose-filled and focused work (and leisure) by just using email for an increasing amount of communication and tasks related to our digital lives and businesses.

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