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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Suffering from chronic idiocy since 1977


Email Doesn’t Scale

I’ve been want­ing to write about my prob­lems with email for a while now, but keep com­ing up short when it comes to explain­ing exactly why it fails for me. That is, until read­ing Tantek’s lat­est on the subject:

I’m prob­a­bly respond­ing to less than 1 in 10 emails that are sent directly to me, even fewer of those that are sent to a set of peo­ple or a list. The usabil­ity of email for me has dete­ri­o­rated so much that I exclaimed on Twit­ter recently: EMAIL shall hence­forth be known as EFAIL.”

He goes on to explain his thoughts on why point to point com­mu­ni­ca­tions do not scale, and how emails in gen­eral are becom­ing too bloated (the lack of a sin­gu­lar focus in many emails I receive def­i­nitely impacts my like­li­hood of respond­ing), as well as how 1:many or 1:all medi­ums are supe­rior to 1:1 meth­ods (e.g. email). This is exactly what I’ve been try­ing to fig­ure out how to say.


Tan­tek cer­tainly isn’t the first to write about the the prob­lems with email — Mike Davidson’s solu­tion last year was to reduce the length and detail of replies to a spe­cific num­ber of sen­tences, but that hasn’t allowed me to make a suf­fi­cient dent in my inbox.

Sim­i­larly, Inbox Zero (a process many of my friends use to keep the noise down) just doesn’t seem to work for me. Plus, hav­ing an empty inbox won’t stop peo­ple from com­mu­ni­cat­ing with me via email when they should be using another medium.

It’s not you, it’s me

Both Inbox Zero and Sentenc.es aim to reduce the impact of the full inbox by mak­ing it eas­ier to empty on a reg­u­lar basis, but for me that doesn’t solve the prob­lem as I see it–it isn’t a mat­ter of find­ing a way to work around what email has become, it’s just that email is being used improp­erly, and I’d rather use other meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that are more appro­pri­ate to the type and rel­e­vance of the message.

How do we fix it?

Email isn’t bro­ken for every­one (or at least, if it is they don’t real­ize it yet), but I find more peo­ple becom­ing frus­trated with email every week. Add the whole SPAM prob­lem into the mix (over the last 6 months, more and more of my valid incoming/outgoing mes­sages are get­ting caught by SPAM fil­ters than ever) and I just see email con­tin­u­ing its down­ward spiral.

I’m not sure of the solu­tion — as long as my clients con­tinue to send me emails and expect a response, I’m a bit ner­vous to tell them to shove it (it’s hard enough to get them to all use Base­camp instead for project com­mu­ni­ca­tion, let alone stop using a method that still works for them), but per­haps that’s what it will come down to. Tantek’s arti­cle ends with a list of sug­ges­tions that can serve as a decent start­ing point, and his Email Reduc­tion project is also worth check­ing out.

Does email = efail for you? How do you feel about the future of email?

This item was posted by Dan Rubin on Wednesday, February 27th, 2008.


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6 comments on “Email Doesn’t Scale”

  1. Posted by Mike D. on Wednesday, February 27th, 2008.

    I love your blog. Did you design this your­self? It rawks.

  2. Posted by Matt Robin on Wednesday, February 27th, 2008.

    Mike: Dan’s blog design is like so super-wicked-cool. Espe­cially the use of orange.


    Dan: I must admit, I don’t exactly get swamped with e-mails…so it is hard for me to con­sider e-mails being a par­tic­u­larly bad way to com­mu­ni­cate. E-mail Servers…yes, those are bas­tards(!) but e-mails aren’t too bad. The bloated con­tent only appears to stem from some peo­ple not know­ing how to write well in e-mails, or, like me — just end up ram­bling on for too long.

    I use Gmail/Googlemail for my main web-related e-mails, and I must admit that hav­ing the Gmail Search facil­ity (for exam­ple, if I wanted to find all e-mails in my Inbox that had the words ‘super­flu­ous ban­ter’) it is no prob­lem at all, even with bloated text in the e-mails them­selves. My spam fil­ters are work­ing ok too, and I use a dif­fer­ent e-mail address for sign­ing up to any sites where I sus­pect I might get any spam sent to me (which keeps it out of my Gmail account most of the time). I think e-mail is fine if it is used appropriately.

    I think that’s all I need to say on that for now — I ran in to some bit­ter con­tro­versy months ago with my less than favourable com­ments about the ‘E-mail Stan­dards Project’, so I’ve been wary to express an opin­ion about e-mail related mat­ters since then.

  3. Posted by Sarven Capadisli on Thursday, February 28th, 2008.

    When all these attach­ments and replies are fly­ing around it just cre­ates chaos out of nothing.

    Wiki+IRC is one way of going at it which I think cov­ers 80% of the com­mu­ni­ca­tion needs.

    I’ve writ­ten about IRC as a social plat­form here: http://www.csarven.ca/irc-social-network

  4. Posted by Dan Rubin on Saturday, March 1st, 2008.

    @Mike D: Thx, I’m hap­pier with this theme than any I’ve designed before.

  5. Posted by David Shirey on Wednesday, April 30th, 2008.

    The prob­lem is that email should not be thought of as a uni­ver­sal com­mu­ni­ca­tion solu­tion. That is, it doesn’t work well in all sit­u­a­tions. Email is good if you need a yes or no type answer, and there will be no dis­cus­sion. If you have some­thing com­pli­cated and you need dis­cus­sion, all of a sud­den you have 20 emails, each one sen­tence long, that con­sumes an hour of your time. Some­times you need the give and take of a per­sonal con­ver­sa­tion. The prob­lem with that? No body answers their stinkin’ phone any­more. And that is what has forced every­one to rely on email. At least with email you have an date/time stamped audit trail to prove you tried to resolve the issue. The real solu­tion? Stop doing or being involved with com­pli­cated things. Just keep repeat­ing ‘Sim­ple is better’.

  6. Posted by Niyaz on Friday, July 18th, 2008.

    I think think­ing of it based on sheer num­bers is the prob­lem.
    Some points:
    (1) Sort your email based on the sender
    (2) Senders you per­son­ally know are high pri­or­ity
    (3) Respond to oth­ers based on the sentenc.es rule.
    (4) All this is a con­se­quence of pop­u­lar­ity and power. Adjust with that.