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.

Unreliable for communication

The author hints that this is related to spam concerns, but this is perhaps the biggest lie about email. Email is, in fact, the most reliable form of communication on the internet, and arguably more reliable than modern telephone conversation too (since the arrival of radio/cell phones).

Not only is email robustly reliable and can bounce around all sorts of broken internet issues for quite a while, it’s a formal internet standard that does not rely upon a single failure point like most alternatives to email.

Facebook Messenger, Slack, Skype, Discord, and WhatsApp (often seen as email alternatives) are completely dependent on a single company on both ends of the connection. For instance, if WhatsApp goes down, not only can you not send/receive messages, you won’t be able to see your old ones, and no one else on your network will be able to either. You could argue that a single email provider has the same effect, but you’d be wrong. If Gmail goes down, I can still send emails to Gmail recipients and I can still see past messages from Gmail users.

No private messaging app or email alternative has the resiliency of email.

What people mean when they say email is unreliable, quite often, is “my email inbox is a mess and I’m not really sure where things are”, or “I don’t really check email that much so it would be easier if you messaged me on X”.

Sometimes it means that people think the “read” indicator on many platforms today gives them the (false) assurance that their message was actually read. Well, email has ‘read receipts’ too, and we learned two things about them a long time ago with email: (a) for non-critical emails, turning on your read receipt request feature is a good way to annoy friends and family, and (b) just because someone ‘opened’ your email and you got a read receipt doesn’t mean they actually read it. Modern messaging users would do well to remember that. One friend of mine leaves Skype open and ‘sees’ my messages as they flip from app to app on their work desktop; only at the end of the day when closing Skype do they usually ‘notice’ the messages and reply. Meanwhile, Skype has been telling me they have ‘read’ the messages.

I’ve also dealt with senders who have decided to use their mobile phone (usually Android) as their email ‘source of truth’ and they seem to not have it setup correctly, so emails they send are sometimes not sent over mobile. Unreliability here would apply to any software or messaging app not setup correctly.

Sending email over some networks can be blocked, but that can apply to any messaging protocol. I’ve often worked at wi-fi cafes that block SMTP from desktop email clients because, sadly, there is a small subset of bad actors that use such places to send out spam (or may have infected laptops doing it without their knowledge).

None of that takes away from the reliability of email. In fact, in almost all cases, when you send an email that fails to deliver, you get a “bounce” with an error message as to why. My favorite bounce is one that says the recipient has exceeded their email storage. This is usually seen on academic and government servers using old-school data storage management techniques (i.e., stingy sysops). By way of contrast, most messaging apps just say ‘failed to send’. You generally have no idea if it was you, the network, or them. You just click retry over and over until you realize that your message wasn’t that important anyway, or you pick up the phone (which is usually when you realize they’ve changed their number or that they didn’t pay their mobile phone provider).

One-line replies that don’t add value

This dislike about email is rather laughable in an age of messaging apps that do almost exclusively that. How often have you received an ‘instant’ message that was a well thought-out reply? In contrast to the many ‘chirps’ we get all day long, email replies are usually closer to introspective and deeper connection than any given ‘instant’ message.

The author also combined concerns about one-line replies that ‘miss the point entirely’. In other words, people’s dislike about email is that they sent a well thought-out email that covered all the salient concerns, and the person who replied clearly didn’t read it, or understand it. Needless to say, that is the history of written communication in a nutshell there. That’s hardly isolated to email and, in fact, is far more prevalent on modern messaging apps than email (just try making forward progress on Slack someday for a real ‘fingernails on chalkboard’ experience).

One of the beauties of email is that it doesn’t, by definition, attempt to quash or control the various types of communication you can send. Although modern messaging apps are increasingly allowing longer ‘walls of text’, attachments, and similar email-like characteristics, their very nature of non-contemplative communication, plus historical habits and norms, prevent them from realistically taking advantage of those new features.

Don’t believe me? Try sending long-form text, such as this article, by cutting and pasting it into your favorite modern messaging app. You’ll likely reach a ‘character limit’ even though you could likely attach at as a document. You might argue that you would just send a link, but that’s only because I’ve published this text online.

Would you really send this much text via a modern messaging app? Would you really expect someone to read it? On their phone? Before the conversation scrolls up to more off-topic messages? And then reply thoughtfully to you?

Moreover, unlike a written letter, email at least allows, socially speaking, the one-line reply. Send a hand-written letter to a friend and they will feel obliged to reply in kind. That can be stifling for some people. Email permits the social freedom of a quick reply now with a deeper response later (or even multiple short replies over a period of time), all contained in the same ‘thread’ or subject line.

You can’t guarantee being understood and replied to thoughtfully — on any messaging protocol, including in-person— but you can mitigate against the risk of being misunderstood. Of all internet-based personal communication, email has the least chance of people “missing the point entirely”. But don’t be fooled; people are still people and we are all going to misunderstand even the best writing from time to time.

Top-Quoting

Here the author is referring to the default of many email clients to start the reply at the top of the existing text, leaving the prior text ‘quoted’ below the new reply. This isn’t the fault of email, however, but of people’s personal habits. You can’t force people to reply to you on email in the way that you might prefer.

One great thing about email is that you aren’t required to use the same reply method for all emails. I will sometimes reply at the bottom of an email. I will more often reply ‘inline’, where I break up their existing email and put my replies in-between, so as to cover relevant points. In those cases, I often just delete parts of their original text that isn’t relevant to my reply. I even edit documents by email (usually using colors and bold) just smashing up all their original email text — which is very okay and acceptable by email (they have their original; I’m not ruining anything).

Contrast these options to any modern messaging app. I can’t do any of the above. In fact, there is no quoting at all. It’s just assumed each reply will follow the next in a nice orderly manner, and that everyone will stay on topic until each point is resolved, and that all conversation points will be answered thoroughly in the order in which they were brought up because no single point should require any more thought or research than any other point — and if it does, it will be up to you to manage that on your own outside the platform’s capability. In other words, simply leaving something in your inbox for another time isn’t an option with most platforms. Reply now or, likely, never, or be diligent about cutting/pasting that into some third-party notes app (or use your brain to remember it, but that seems to be more unreliable than ever in these distracting times).

Forget about the top-quoting debate. I’ll write about it more here another time, but its outside the scope of any real issue with email since email is flexible to allow whatever reply methodology you prefer, even changing it from email to email as needed. Email is flexible; other platforms are not.

De facto oligopoly of email providers

If you’re like me and had to look up oligopoly, it means “a state of limited competition, in which a market is shared by a small number of producers or sellers.”

What the complainant means by that is that Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, and Outlook seemingly control the market. But that, my email-loving friends, is an illusion and is largely why moderns feel lost by email sometimes. The complainant went on to say that those providers also seem to make up new rules that affect email. That’s an article for another time, but on that point, I agree. (Gmail labels and default categories, anyone?)

But the reality is that, once again, this concern about email actually applies 100-fold to other modern messaging apps. There is a much more narrow list of options for messaging apps. After you move from historical communication methods of in-person, letters, and more recently, the telephone call (I’ll skip semaphore and smoke signals for now) and move into the internet-based communication world, email is actually the most diverse option available.

Just because many people seem ‘stuck’ on the Big Four of Email above, doesn’t mean that it’s the reality. Granted, when I see a signup sheet with email addresses, a part of me groans as I look down the list and see one Gmail address after one Yahoo address after another. My dad used to say “If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking”. That’s the point of this website: to help people think about some alternate ways.

One other minor point needs addressing here. The oligopoly of modern messaging apps is far, far worse than what an email oligopoly would be (which doesn’t exist, as I’ve just argued above). Because at least with email, communication outside one’s chosen network is not only possible, but completely natural. That isn’t so with modern messaging apps: thou shalt communicate only in-network and if you wish to breach our user base, you will sign up with YAN (Yet Another Network).

Spam and ‘abuse’

The ‘spam’ problem has largely been solved. Few people are getting true spam anymore. If you are, maybe its time to switch to a better email provider.

Again, this is hardly an issue solely with email. SMS spam is never-ending (I have over 300 numbers blocked on my phone). Although closed networks like WhatsApp don’t have much spam, in my opinion, they have their own spam-like problems, and true spam on those systems is increasing, not decreasing.

The age-old problem of ‘receiving interruptive communications I don’t want’ isn’t going away. From the guy hitting you up for spare change at the end of a long day when you just want to go home and sleep, to junk mail at your home, to televisions in airport waiting lounges that no one seems to know how to mute or turn off, to the guy at the traffic light blasting his music over yours, this problem has been around forever. It’s called ‘humans’, and if we could just get rid of all of them, things would be swell (I’m kidding here!).

Despite email being a term synonymous with ‘spam’, it’s actually the best platform that allows you the most control over spam and interruptions, while simultaneously allowing you the most accessibility. The controls are there; you just need to learn to use them.

The ‘abuse’ aspect is when someone emails you repeatedly and, unlike true spam, is some remote acquaintance or business contact, or someone in your extended social circle you’d rather not hear from — or perhaps an ‘ex’ of some kind. Again, this can happen when that same person gets your phone number, or is also on WhatsApp. And just like those mediums, you have full control over whether or not to block them.

But, and this is a Big But, unlike all other messaging platforms, email has more nuanced options. You don’t have to do an outright block, or ‘mute notifications’ which some messaging apps allow. Sometimes, it may not be politically expedient to block or mute someone. With email, you can just create a rule to sling that person’s emails into a buried folder, even marking them as read if you want. You can even use rules just to take action on only specific emails that have a certain subject, or contain certain text (or don’t have them).

In fact, you could go a bit further (if you’re the type that likes to make a scene) and set up on auto-reply to that person’s emails saying “I am taking an email sabbatical and only checking email once a week. I may reply at that time if I’m not too busy, else hopefully, sometime in the following weeks”, thereby slowly weaning them off their dependency on you. Try that with any other platform.

Filters and organisation of email is often difficult. The tools provided are not always well suited for the task.

I disagree with the first point; the second has some merit.

First, learning how to filter and organize email is not difficult. There are lots of strategies, but the basics are relatively simple. I’ll be covering some strategies and tips in future articles.

The fact is that email at least allows filtering and organization. You aren’t forced to do it, but unlike modern messaging apps, you aren’t prohibited from it either.

On the second point, its true that some providers make filtering rules a bit too wonky and confusing. Despite my own professional use of email for nearly everything, there are providers whose rules-based filters initially confound me.

Assuming you own your own domain name (and you should), you don’t have to stick with an email provider’s tools. Changing email providers is at least possible, and not too terribly difficult (although I have some strategies about that which I’ll share later).

The same can not be said for modern messaging apps. Not only are there almost zero organization or rules-based filters, but if you want to leave, you can’t. At least, not without losing contact on that network with all your friends, family, business associates, and more.

Threading is unreliable

At this point, you’re probably sensing a pattern. The complaints about email, while not completely invalid, are usually ten times worse at competing platforms.

If you’re a user of iMessage, WhatsApp, Skype, or postal letters, you’re probably asking “Threading? What threading?”.

Threading (sometimes called Conversation View) is when your email provider tries to smartly keep all emails related to a subject in one handy chunk, no matter how much time has elapsed between replies (even in group emails) and no matter how many other emails have come in meanwhile on other topics.

It’s not part of the email protocol itself; it’s a ‘feature’ at many email providers, and I believe was first widely used at Gmail. Every provider I’ve ever seen allows you to turn threading off.

I’m personally against using threaded messages, but I’ll explain why at another time.

The point here is that at least you can thread your email messages into a conversation view if you want.

Recently, some ‘instant’ messaging providers have introduced a feature where you can reply to a single chat message even if it’s further up in the chat and it will be quoted to the recipient(s) so they know what you’re replying to. This is usually accomplished on a smartphone by long-pressing (holding) the original message you want to reply to and then typing your reply. The original message will get a bubble and your reply will be seen inline there (which is helpful for group members who later read the old message) and in some cases, will also be reposted as a new message with a quote of the old attached right to it.

It’s a bit crude, but it makes those modern messaging apps slightly less confusing if people bother to use that feature. But threading in email is like that old saying about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all others.

Email addresses are too tightly tied to your identity.

What the? If there is anything tied too tightly to your identity, it’s social media messaging apps, your phone number, and your home address. Sure, many people often have a main email address that has their full name right in the email address itself.

While many are a fan of the ‘one email address to rule them all’ approach, I think its unwise in this day and age where we also use our email address to communicate or maintain logins with businesses, financial institutions, e-commerce stores, strangers on the internet, and so forth. When the hackers come for your favorite business (and they will), you’ll want to have some ‘separation of concerns’ prepared. Having your own domain names and email addresses is a first step, but that doesn’t mean you have to check 5 different email inboxes. I’ll write more about this approach later.

Again, email wins with on flexibility. If you want a single address that says mrbobsmathers@bobsmathers.com and you want to give it out to social media companies, banks, friends, family, work colleagues, airlines, school, blog commenting systems, utility companies, gaming platforms, and government agencies, go right ahead.

But you don’t have to. Only modern messaging apps make you do this with their emphasis on real identity. Most messaging platforms won’t let you (easily) signup for a secondary account, and if you do, good luck on trying to switch back and forth between them on your device.

Searching is often inadquate

This was somewhat true about 20 years ago. Back then, people often downloaded all their email (via POP3) onto their desktop email client. Depending on the client and the operating system, searching could be slow, or even impartial.

That has long since been improved. If someone can’t find an email in, for instance, Gmail… trust me, it’s not because of email itself. The old user error joke about the ‘problem existing between the keyboard and the chair’ is usually the culprit, not the email platform.

Again, email search is infinitely superior to searching on any other modern messaging platform, and trust me, I have searched extensively on almost all of them. Not only are the results comprehensive and easily viewable on most email searches, but the amount of parameters one can search on is robust. Beyond standard text, you can often filter by recipient, date ranges, pins and read status, subject lines, attachments, and more.

Slack’s searching power comes close but it still pales in comparison. First, many companies don’t pay for all of Slack so messages after some point in time are deleted. But for those that do, the in-app results, while fast, are tricky to navigate. If you go into a message to find out more, you lose your search and have to redo it. Plus, the wonky font-happy interface of Slack makes eye-scanning slow. I generally change my Slack window for searches to slightly improve my odds.

Email searching is incredibly powerful. Beyond that, if you use email for everything, you have one central ‘knowledge base’ to locate what you need. Most people are also on 3 or 4 additional networks and they have to try and remember first where they might have stored that information. With email, it’s all right there. Many email providers let you save prior searches as ‘smart folders’, too. So, if you want to have a search for all emails from United Airlines that have the word “Itinerary” in the subject and were received in the past 3 months, your email software will keep that folder updated automatically for you. No need to repeat that search each time you’re getting ready to travel.

You could also setup a saved search for all emails from your girlfriend that you have not replied to and that do not contain attachments with some email providers.

Thus, the complaint about email search being ‘inadequate’ is unfounded. Email search has the best searching options and power over and above all other internet-based communications.

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