Whitney Hess wrote an interesting piece about email today. She was responding to the tide of “email is the worst,” and the “stop checking email so much” manifestos that have populated the internet like Inbox Zero and GTD.
Her thesis was the following:
I want to stop the email slander. Instead I want to recognize it for what it is: the people who make up my life. Best friends, strangers, colleagues, role models, mentees, prospects. Even the bills, even the mailing lists, even the surveys! There are human beings behind every one of them. Regardless of intention, regardless of quality, regardless of relevance — there they are, right in front of me.
So let’s embrace email. Let’s embrace each other. And respond.
While I understand where Whitney is coming from, I disagree with the conclusion. Email isn’t people. I agree that most of the time, we owe people the respect of a response when they take the time to reach out to us in most communication forms. It’s important to never lose touch with the people that surround us, and that means staying in communication. That means responding.
But email isn’t people. We can’t treat email the same way we treat our friends or or coworkers or our significant others. That’s a trap.
Email is simply one way (out of many) people have learned to communicate with one another. Not all ways of communicating are equal. And, depending on the context, we prefer that people communicate with us in certain ways over others.
For example, we don’t yell at our significant others all day because it’s disrespectful and emotionally draining. In fact, we modulate our voices a lot based on the context of the exchange. Everything from a whisper to a normal voice is fair game depending on the context and the message.
The medium of communication is intrinsic to the message. Sweet nothings are whispered, not shouted, because they are more intimate that way.
That’s an extreme example to establish that people have a lot of nuanced ways to communicate with one another. The internet is simply an expression of that. We have as many ways of communicating digitally as we do with our body language and our voice.
Think about it.
We don’t send an hour’s worth of text messages when one 5 minute phone call will do. And we don’t write on a Facebook wall something that was private between two people. I don’t tweet you to ask if you want to go on a date, and you don’t send a fax to ask me if I want fries with that.
Let’s say that two people were sending each other sexy photos as part of their flirtation. That goes somewhere like Snapchat or Pair, not on HackerNews, right?
There’s a context for every communication, and a proper medium for every message.
So back to email. Email is just one form of communication people use to get a message across. It’s one form among many.
Where email went wrong was it became the go-to for too many different types of messages, not all of which have the same value or urgency. Email is all the things. Email is everything from appointment reminders to contract proposals to technical questions to “can you help me with my startup?” to “please pay your credit card bill.”
Not all of those are of equal import. Not all of those deserve a response every time.
To keep up with all the messages, we have to be more efficient with our emailing habits, and train the people who email us to help us with that. That means brevity, and not answering emails when the email probably shouldn’t have been sent in the first place.
The volume and diversity of messages we receive via email is incompatible with the amount of time we should spend on email in a day. If we were to spend tons of time with each email, we’d lose touch with all those other ways we connect with people. And those other ways of communicating, like talking, are much more powerful methods of connecting with people than email will ever be.
The problem isn’t that we’re disrespectful of one another via email if we don’t respond to everything. Sometimes no response IS the response. The problem is that email still needs some innovation to add context to the medium so that the inbox cues us to the importance of a message. Email has a ton of potential to be nuanced and subtle, but it needs to give us more to work with than an inbox and some folders.
People aren’t email. We can’t simply “archive” our friends, or “mark unread” and come back to them later.
Well, we could, but they might not stay friends with us very long.
And we can’t treat every person in our life the same way either. Our close friends get more attention than people we don’t know. Some people deserve a response, and sometimes the best choice is to not respond to someone and simply move on with our day.
People are people. Email is a fledgling way that people connect with each other.
Email needs to adapt to us. Not the other way around.