About this site's lack of design: Yes, it's supposed to look this way — I'm helping create a new sandbox theme for WordPress (see it on GitHub).

Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Suffering from chronic idiocy since 1977

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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.

Semi-solutions

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.