Email Superpower 3: Trusted beyond all others

Say what you will about email. Go ahead. Trash it. Say it sucks. Talk about your bloated inboxes, the proliferation of spam, and that your particular email client doesn’t do something shiny.

Tell me your woes. Tell me about how great Slack is, how amazing instant messaging is and how you can emoji your way out of almost any meaningful connection. Talk about ghosting, blocking, banning, bullying, notification hell, and all the other fun that comes from modern-day messaging apps.

But deep down you know it’s all hoopla and pixie dust. Your love affair with Snapchat is as ephemeral as their disappearing messages. Your reliance on Facebook Messenger to keep in touch with everyone you’ve ever met since junior high is riding a roller coaster which you know has a very real end.

But even if those services never ended, and even if you could somehow archive your SMS messages forever, you know it’s a fairy tale. It’s a friction right up there with moving to Alaska and “living off the land”. Sure, you could do it, but will you really?

Email is the only digital communications platform that is truly trusted. By everyone.

Why is it trusted so deeply? Let me count the ways.

The email format and related standards have been around forever and have barely changed much. If you’ve heard of the Lindy Effect, which roughly declares that the longer something has been around, the more likely it will still be around, then you’d put your money on email. Fifty years is an eternity when it comes to the internet. Nothing else really comes close.

Email was one of the first uses of the early internet and it has only gotten bigger and badder since. Take a look at Email Is Not Dead, a website I love so much that I linked to it on the sidebar. For May 2021, it reports there are 4.037 billion email users with a projected growth of 3% through 2024 to 4.481 billion users. Yes, email users are still growing at a respect rate. Plenty of other fun facts are on their site (which can help you smell the hype and propaganda put out by commercial messaging apps).

The email standards are governed by a wide-group of people all over the world, not by a single for-profit corporation. Most of those standards are set by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), a standards-based organization operating under the auspices of the Internet Society, an international membership-based non-profit organization. Can your alternative messaging app get that kind of street cred? Would Facebook ever allow it’s messaging apps, including WhatsApp, to be governed in such a way? The answer is no, as it would be with most all other apps.

The current email format is able to read (and even reply) to older formats. You can reply now to an email you got 30 years ago. Go ahead. I mean, maybe that email address no longer exists for that person, but if it did, you could hit reply and they would get it in seconds.

The email format is portable. You can take your emails from one email service to another, from one client to another. Don’t like your email client? Switch to a new one and import all your old emails. Everything works as it did before. You can use web-based email software, apps for phones and tablets, or any desktop email client software you want and your email will just work. You aren’t required to “sign up” for a new service, but if you do, you can also move or import all your old emails to it.

The email format is widely accepted in most courts throughout the world as “evidence” (despite this causing certain people a bit of frustration, such as Hillary Clinton, certain executives at Enron, and now what looks to be a certain young man who shares the last name as our current president). In a sense, those traces of emails prove the value of email as a trusted source of evidence, even when some people prefer it not be so accepted as such.

Email is based on an actual internet standard. To quote Wikipedia, “Although many more standards actually apply to e-mail, virtually all mail servers and e-mail clients support at least the following basic set:

  • SMTP (or RFC 5321) specifies the protocol by which e-mail is transmitted
  • RFC 5322 specifies the basic format for e-mail
  • MIME supplements the e-mail formatting rules to allow non-English text in both e-mail headers and bodies, and defines a mechanism for including non-textual attachments in e-mail bodies
  • POP3 and IMAP4 specify e-mail retrieval protocols used by e-mail clients

Email is the one thing you need to sign up for almost every other service out there. In fact, the only exception is a mobile phone number for some services, but despite how common mobile phone numbers are, more people have email addresses than mobile phone numbers. Plus, unlike mobile phone numbers, email is more secure, more controllable (you can filter incoming emails and have aliases for different services), and is less distracting. People are generally wary about giving out their mobile phone number because they know they might get text messages — or their number might be shared — and they prefer to keep that in their inbox. Aside from email, no other single online source of identity is so prevalent that every service can safely offer email as their single access point to every internet visitor as a way to sign up.

Email addresses tend to linger longer than any other form of address. Some of us still have old AOL email addresses and even CompuServe. Mobile numbers, online social media accounts, and messaging platforms are less likely to still be operational under the same address for a person than email will be after a certain period of time.

Email can be stored offline and not dependent on any service. Once you receive an email, you have the easy option to forever store, backup, and move that email to any other service — or no service at all! You can simply export and save all your emails on your hard drive or a USB thumb drive if you want. They are mobile and readable by any other email client. That means you can archive your old emails “offline” and move them out of your current service. That is not possible with messaging apps in most cases. Additionally, that means you can even save embarrassing emails, drafts, or even emails from dead people – for decades.

Email is international. Truly international. Most services today say they are “available” in most countries, but only email is truly available to any machine connected to the internet anywhere. It is not dependent on some central operator gaining “access rights” or setting up a “legal entity” in a foreign country. It works just now. Short of mass censorship, email is available everywhere. Even with mass censorship, email still works in many cases.

Email routing is public. If you want to determine how an email got from Point A to Point B, you can follow its journey, more or less, by examining its headers. Any recipient of an email can pour through the headers to learn more about the sender and the path through which it was sent. While most of us never actually do this in practice, the point is that such a thing is easily possible with any email client. The same can not be said for almost every other messaging system. If there is metadata hidden in the headers of other messaging systems, users do not have unfettered access to it. This feature gives rise to the fact that…

Email is Transparent. Email is not on a closed network controlled by a single for-profit corporation. Email traceability and public routing creates a transparency that adds to email’s authority. Few other messaging platforms have anything close to this. The transparency of email leads to an important feature where…

Email Senders can be Rated. Yes, within private messaging apps and networks you can block senders. But you are usually doing all the heavy lifting. Email is not perfect here, but it makes some attempt at mitigating the effect of bad actors. While it’s not part of the official specs, the transparency of email allows third-party systems to measure abuse on to provide their customers a way to minimize the impact of those who have previously abused email. This is especially impressive when one considers the many different types of email services. No single organization can ban or block a sender of email, but a person who routinely abuses email can be given a bad reputation that other organizations can act upon and against that person’s impact toward their customers.

Businesses and Governments use it for almost all official digital communication. There are probably unusual wacky exceptions, but you generally don’t hear of a company making a public statement over Slack or Signal. Governments don’t relay the outcomes of hearings or proceedings by text message. Aside from website publishing, the most official press releases are sent out by email. While that doesn’t necessary make email more trusted, it speaks to an underlying culture of email as the current king of the hill when it comes to official communication. It’s not likely we will see that reign end soon. This type of usage furthers email role as the frontrunner.

All of the above form almost a protective shield of trust around email with which no other digital communications platform can compete. Taken individually, each is a strong weapon in email’s arsenal, but taken as a whole, email literally mops the floor with the other apps.

Anyone still have their entire archive of AOL Instant Messenger? And if you somehow do, could you still reply to any of those messages or otherwise contact those old friends through that network? Nope.

Subconsciously, we know that one day we’ll experience the same decline and death of almost all our current messaging apps, along with access to those contacts.

Unless, right now, in anticipation of their timely demises, we reach out right now to our contacts and get their email address.