Three Reasons Why Email Will Never Die

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Sept. 19 2013 5:51 AM

In Praise of an Overflowing Inbox

Email is ubiquitous, meritocratic, and forgiving. It will never die, and I don’t want it to.

I love email

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This will be one of my last columns for Slate. I’m starting a new job next week. Over the last few days, as I was thinking about how to say goodbye to my Slate colleagues and readers, several possibilities sprang to mind. I considered making a big panda-shaped cake for David Plotz (he does, after all, want to abolish my birth month). I thought about writing to Prudie for advice on how to tell my new boss that I like wearing pajamas during the workday. Or I could make a splash by reversing my ironclad rule against using two spaces after a period.

Any of these would have been a fitting capstone to five years of “rampant asshattery,” as one reader once described my column. But when I asked myself what I’ll miss most about this magazine, my farewell became obvious: I knew I had to write about Slate’s email.

Nobody gives email its due. We all kvetch about how much mail we get, how little of it is important, and how difficult it is to sort the good from the bad. Filtering and responding to email is one of the most annoying parts of my job. But I wouldn’t ever give it up. As annoying as it is, email was also just about the most important part of my job at Slate—the best forum for brainstorming with colleagues, for sharpening my arguments, for finding new ideas, and for chatting up sources. Without email, a magazine like Slate just couldn’t work. But I think email’s indispensability transcends online magazines. As much as email grieves us, most of our jobs wouldn’t be possible without it.

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Every few years in the tech press, you hear rumblings of email’s demise. IM, Skype, texting, Facebook, Yammer, and Snapchat have all been predicted to put an end to the scourge of email. These new communications tools hold the possibility of being less spammy, more intimate, and more secure than email. The theory is that because these services know something about you and your friends, and because they’re not open to the rest of the world, they’ll be immune to all the junk you get on email.

But that theory misses what’s important about email. Sure, email is open, chaotic, and messy. As I’ll explain below, though, those aren’t bugs but features. Here’s my ode to email—or, if you prefer, three reasons email will never die:

Email is ubiquitous. Slate’s operations span a couple of offices (in Washington, D.C. and New York), but throughout my time here, I’ve worked from my home in California. This means that I’ve met most of my colleagues only a handful of times, mainly once a year at the company’s annual retreat. (When I picture most of them, it’s in swim trunks.) Remarkably, though, I feel like I know everyone at Slate very well. Even more remarkably, I think they think they know me.

I credit email for this familiarity. At Slate, there are several email aliases that go to the whole editorial staff or specific subsets (like only tech writers or culture writers). For me, far from the office, these aliases seemed the true heart of this magazine, the place that everyone was plugged into all the time. From my first day here, I began contributing to these aliases like mad, constantly emailing links, ideas, and lots and lots of responses. This sounds like it might be annoying to my colleagues, and I’m sure it often was. But it also made me part of the magazine. Because story suggestions, planning memos, and brainstorming get sent through email, where I was a constant presence, I never felt terribly distant from what was going on in offices thousands of miles away.

Of course any other long-distance communication medium might have achieved similar results, but email’s got one advantage over everything else: It works everywhere. Anyone at Slate, no matter how tech savvy or unsavvy, could use email from any device, from wherever they were, all the time. Email is also fantastically easy to use—easier than most social apps, which all require some kind of setup, and usually prove to be more work than they’re worth. Email’s ubiquity feeds on itself: Because it’s the thing everyone else is already using, none of us can stop using it, which is why it has survived every recent tech transition (from desktop apps to Web apps to, now, mobile apps).

Email is inviting and meritocratic. One thing people hate about email is that every message shows up in your mailbox pretty much the same way—you see the sender, subject line, and a small preview. Emails from your boss aren’t accorded better placement than messages from an intern or from some schemer in Nigeria. Smart email services like Gmail and Outlook do offer lots of tools for automatically filtering mail, but in general, if you get a lot of messages, your inbox looks like a big mess every morning.

Another way to say this is: Email doesn’t discriminate. Because anyone in the world, even strangers, can email me, and because a message that comes from my boss looks exactly like one that comes from an intern, email is the most egalitarian, accessible communications tool in your office. When every message looks the same, you’re forced to confront lots of viewpoints. Email gives newcomers to an organization just as much of an opportunity to join the conversation as old-timers. I suspect this would be less likely on social networks like Yammer, where richer profile information—follower counts, pictures, and such—clouds out content.

Email is forgiving. The other problem with social networks is their relentless focus on feedback. Everything you do on Facebook or Google Plus is judged by little “likes” and “+1s,” so you’re liable to feel wary about saying anything unpopular.

As I said, I’ve probably annoyed my colleagues with the amount of email I send, but I’ve never really worried about it. Because we all get so much email anyway, and we’ve all grown accustomed to skimming our inboxes for the best stuff, you face little penalty for sending an ill-considered message. This is good—it encourages people to speak their mind, to send their half-assed thoughts for the group’s approval, because the worst that could happen is that people just ignore you like they ignore everything else in their inbox.

Some of my most popular Slate stories began as such half-assed thoughts. Late in 2010, I sent a message to the Slate staff wondering, “Two spaces after a period. Why do people still do that? I see it in email all the time. Are schools still teaching it?” It sparked a long thread that convinced me there was a story there. More recently, I complained: “Leave your dog at home. I don't like him.” Again, lots of people chimed in—giving me fodder for this rant. Several pieces began as other people’s complaints. Why do restaurant websites suck? Why are NPR letter writers such snoots? And why local bookstores are terrible.

None of these were fully my ideas—they were all born as part of memorable discussion threads on the loopy, absorbing and totally brilliant email lists that power Slate. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been telling all my colleagues that I’ll miss them, but that’s not the whole truth. Mostly, though, I’ll just miss their mail.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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