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Death to the Inbox

by Connor Tomas O'Brien , August 5, 2014Leave a comment

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Image credit: Gideon Tsang

Almost every drawn-out, passive-aggressive argument I’ve ever participated in is archived in my Gmail inbox, tagged ‘work’. With the benefit of hindsight and Gmail’s advanced search, I can track how each emailed misunderstanding led to a gradual escalation of hostility: the misinterpreting of a good-natured suggestion as a piece of biting criticism, the maddeningly slow response to an important query, the self-serving introduction of ‘URGENT!!’ into a subject line, the probably-deliberate-but-purportedly-accidental cc’ing of a colleague (or ten, or a hundred) into some very private/silly/NSFW correspondence.

‘Email is not broken; we are’, writes Joshua Lyman in a typical Lifehacker post, echoing the persistent lifehacking trope that we are invariably the source of our own technological problems. Self-help books and courses once encouraged us to win friends and influence people, but now appear largely dedicated to encouraging us to change our lives and ourselves in a bid to become better email users (adopt ‘Inbox Zero’! Sign the ‘Email Charter’! Reconceptualise your inbox as a to-do list!), if not necessarily better people.

This is all a little strange. While we are all too willing to criticise the underlying design of social networks like Facebook or Twitter, email is so ancient and enigmatic as to feel almost beyond critique. In any case, because the asynchronous messaging protocol powering email is so radically decentralised, there’s no real email infrastructure equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg, no figurehead capable of responding to our public complaints and protestations. For as long as we keep using email, we are simply beholden to its quirks. Recognising we have no power to shape the technology, we have no choice but to turn our criticism back on ourselves: ‘I’m so bad at email’, we tell one another, before muttering something about declaring email bankruptcy or adopting an esoteric new inbox self-disciplining technique.

The primary source of our ‘email problem’ seems to lie in our belief that email is a vastly richer and more capable medium than it is. Though we’ve elevated email to our primary professional communication medium, media theorists rank it below 2-way radio in terms of media-carrying effectiveness. According to media naturalness researchers, email fares even worse when compared with face-to-face communication, resulting in a marked increase in cognitive effort and ambiguity and a huge decrease in communication fluency.

If all of this is true, though, why is it that the Prophets of Disruption continue to aggressively promote eschewing all non-asynchronous, non-written, non-digital forms of communication as much as possible… in favour of even more email? Basecamp CEO Jason Fried, for example, encourages workplaces to experiment with ‘no-talk Thursdays’ and suggests employees avoid phone calls and meetings as much as possible, instead embracing ‘passive communication’ methods (like email!) that allow respondees to reply at their leisure. Merlin Mann goes further, suggesting officeworkers print out red paper tokens that say ‘I’m done having my time wasted; we’re done here’ to hand to co-workers that dare to actually speak to them in the office instead of choosing to email.

The idea seems to be that email is preferable to other modes of communication because it enables radical flexibility on behalf of the recipient: the freedom to reply to a message at any time, at any length, or not at all. The reality, though, is that this asynchronicity tends to manifest most often as a flaw, rather than as a feature: something that could be resolved in several minutes in person or over the phone can take days or weeks via email, as messages are slowly lobbed back-and-forth, every one bringing the promise of some potential new misunderstanding that might take five or fifteen brand new messages to smooth out.

In the US, the number of telecommuters has grown 79.7% from 2005 to 2012. We are barreling toward a future in which offices don’t exist at all, and the only communication we ever have with our ‘coworkers’ happens in the form of endless streams of insistent emails we feel we need to ‘deal with’. Have we really thought this through? Could this really be what any of us want?

In Remote: Office Not Required, Jason Fried snarks, ‘Do you think today’s teenagers, raised on Facebook and texting, will be sentimental about the old days of all-hands-on-deck, Monday morning meetings? Ha!’ It’s posed as a rhetorical question, but I’ve got an answer: dear God, I hope so.

Connor Tomas O’Brien is a web designer and writer, co-founder of ebookstore platform Tomely, and co-director of the Digital Writers’ Festival.

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