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.

One thought on “Email is the Ultimate Communication Boundary”

  1. This was an interesting read, but you miss that most popular Instant Messaging programs (not texting) now have status indicators like the AOL Away messages. Slack and Teams both have and almost everyone I know utilizes the status messages: “🐩 brb walking the dog” or “🏠 GFD see you tomorrow” etc. They are literally bringing back these exact status indicators that AOL had.

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