On this cold winter morning, the first day of January in the year of our Email twenty-two, we stop for a collective moment to think. By common reckoning it is the year 2015, a time once thought to be so far away that email would have been little more than a memory, long supplanted by superior communications technologies wrought by the steady, unrelenting march of progress. After all, we’ve been hearing the condemnation for quite some time: email is dead some say. Or perhaps it should be dead, crushed under a wave of new socially-oriented collaboration tools. Except it’s not. Twenty two years since we started calling email by its proper name, it thrives. It is one of the few things that everyone with access to technology interacts with on a daily basis. Email is everywhere. Email is King. Kneel before email.
A litany of social challengers continue their noble attempts to dethrone Email. But email just sits there, laughing. Email is a survivor. Email stands its ground. Bound to most every decision we make, email is the overwhelming inertial mass of the information age. Every interesting new app or service is necessarily constrained by a signup, by email no less. We shove all manner of communication through email both at work and home, and email dutifully accepts them. And files. Oh the files. Isildur’s true bane of the third age: attachments. What was once a curious extension of email’s original purpose is now a crutch like you wouldn’t believe.
When it comes to work, why aren’t new tools with contextual awareness and graphing magic displacing email? After all, the weaknesses of email are indeed numerous: unmanageable volumes to sort through, lost contexts with threads strewn about, little to no information governance, and an overall poor signal to noise ratio (when every email is marked urgent, none of them are). So what stays the social revolution? Social tools either on their own or as a part of some larger collaboration platform are closed universes, gated playgrounds, with singular UI’s and behaviors. Email is open, free to transform and mutate at the endpoints as necessary for the whims of the individual end user. Email is more personal than social. It’s also much more global than any service with a login can match. Stew on that for a minute.
But how is email more personal? Here are a few thoughts:
- Organizational Freedom: Basically, you can use email however you like. Organize how you like on a client that you like. Email clients allow everyone to sort and prioritize content based on their personal organizational needs -entirely independent of everyone else. And this power is absolute. You can permanently cast out what we don’t want. Keep what we do. And it’s our choice. The follow/like philosophy in the social realm has yet to match this level of individual control, or even the illusion of it.
- Independence and Offline Tolerance: Even if the cords are pulled, the server roasts, and the Cloud lifts, worry not intrepid email adventurer – just keep typing. You can sort it all out later, once you’re back online, but you can keep going in the meantime. The social tools are online dependent – it’s a strength in many ways, but in comparison to email it’s also a fault.
- Global exposure: For email, there are also no walls to remain incased within – any simple forward can (sometimes unfortunately) touch the world. For all the communication required inside a business, there’s just as much outside of it. The resilience of email is not quite good enough for a zombie apocalypse, but it’s almost so. The new tools need to be just as resilient while maintaining better governance.
- Clear Historical Context: Email differs from the social feed model in that it has a real sense of relatable history. Search features grafted on to most social tools have been insufficient to fill this gap even though the history is there. In email, it’s easier to squirrel away key pieces of information forever in your trusty “Remember the Alamo File” to prove that, gosh darn it, you were completely right about the product roadmap or that marketing decision. So when the Visigoths come tromping over the seventh hill demanding all manner of blood, status reports, and explanations for failure, you can easily Remember the Alamo. In the feed model, you’ll have to string together a number of bits of information across a number of searches – in some ways you’re having to second guess a graph that can’t associate objects and individual arguments in such a complex way through automation alone.
Any invention that intends to displace email should take heed of such phenomenon. Yet we can’t send email away any more easily than we could cleave the world in two. But perhaps what will actually replace email is just better email. So Happy New Year, and go check your email.