For the love of Email

Email is the whipping technology of communications. Everyone wants to kill email.

Email is also, for all its problems, fundamental to most modern business communication. While many teams rely more on real-time platforms like Slack or HipChat, or even IRC, which definitely still has a posse, that only takes *back a function that email had begun to coöpt—mostly due to UI improvements in Gmail that made it reasonably good at near-real-time, short messages.

* Let’s call these “real-time plus,” because unlike IRC, there’s a searchable history by default. An IRC client could happily expand gifs or emoji, but persistence isn’t part of the protocol. By opting to use a more complete tool, and not just a protocol, you get persistence, but less customization.

Email semantics

Not all email clients are created equal, and not only because some are web-based and native applications and some are apps. But there’s a fairly common baseline set of semantics:

  • Read/unread. Very obvious.
  • “Star” of some sort.
  • “Archive”, which sometimes is part of
  • Move to “Folder”.
  • “Tag”, often, but not always.
  • “Delete”.

These are the things an email can be: Read or Unread, Starred or Unstarred, Archived or Not Archived, Filed or Unfiled, Tagged (with 𝓍) or Untagged, Deleted or Not Deleted.

Usually, not all of these are present. Sometimes you can Archive, other times you “archive” by Filing. Sometimes you can create Folders, other times you can create Tags.

Let’s break those down even further, combining some of them.

  • Read/unread.
  • Starred/unstarred.
  • Inbox/Not-Inbox.
  • Tagged/Not-Tagged.
  • Deleted.

This set of semantics has been incredibly powerful. So powerful that if you ask 3 people how they organize their email, you’ll probably get 7 answers. Everyone can take this baseline and adapt it to work, personal, side-business, as needed.

A personal example

What do I do? Most of you will probably think I’m insane, but here it is. (Or just skip to the next section.)

My inbox is my TODO list. (I’ve tried other TODO lists and always end up just copying back and forth from email.) If there is a TODO for me in an email—even if that’s just answering it—it stays in the inbox. If there’s something I will need later, it gets starred (tickets are the big thing). If there’s nothing left for me to do, it gets archived. If it’s something automated, it gets trashed (with some exceptions).

I’ve gotten more aggressive about deleting things, particularly marketing emails, since I used to just “archive everything and forget about it.”

I used to be less aggressive about archiving, but I found that things I still needed to do got pushed off the front page by things I didn’t need to do, that were just sitting there, waiting to “age out” to page 2. Now I archive everything. “Send & Archive” is my default button.

I’ve also been trying to use Mailbox more to push things into the future. It works up to a point: I don’t always know how far to push something. I should combine that with a calendar.

So what?

But I’m not here to decry real-time-plus team communication—I think it’s great, especially for distributed or remote-friendly teams.

And I’m not here to explain how you should use email. My point is that it is so prolific because it’s not very opinionated at all. Everyone bends it to their will. I don’t want to kill that.

On the contrary, I want everything to go through my email.

For various reasons, I don’t have Facebook Messenger on my phone. I don’t know if it would matter if I did, because I’m pretty aggressive about turning off badges. (You know what gets to have badges? Email.)

When people send me DMs on Twitter (please don’t, I never pay attention to them) I get emailed, and I can see the contents of the message, which is great. But then the chain is broken, because I can’t reply.

Facebook notifications are even worse—or at least the last time I managed to get one—because all they told me was that I had a message.

GitHub is my favorite. They notify you, and let you respond via email, even if some parts of GitHub-flavored Markdown don’t work that way. You could have a real discussion about an issue without ever leaving your email client.

I’m not trying to break out of anyone’s precious walled garden. I don’t want anyone else to have to adopt my technology. I just want two things.

  1. I want my personal, weird, custom, honed-over-years method of managing communication threads. But I don’t really want Facebook to have to—or even try to—build the flexible, just-opinionated-enough playground that email already is. And
  2. I my communication todo list all in one place. If it’s spread out, I miss things. Or I check off the task of “reading” before realizing I should leave the task for “replying”—a two-sided job that email has baked in.

In my day…

One of the few things I’ll ever say that BlackBerry got unequivocally right was messaging. Way back when, on my BlackBerry Pearl, they had a combined view of all your email, text, and BBM messages. You could see, sort, act on everything with the same set of management semantics, regardless of the source. Some messages were shorter, some longer, some had primitive emojis. The medium may have been the message, but what I did after I got the message was medium-agnostic. It was great.

I’ve been looking for that level of integration for years. I’ll happily accept getting FB messages, DMs, WhatsApp, what-have-you, to work with me through email.

OK, I think that’s enough of a curmudgeonly Friday-night rant.