Bad Email

This post is about one of the most important communication means we are currently using: email communication. It is not about “bad emails” – there are many of them. We talk about them as junk-mail, spam, etc. We read about the Nigerian prince with tons of money or the new medicine that will make our partners so much happier.

This post is about “bad email”, a description of the entire tool that has revolutionized our entire communication process. Electronic mail was all of a sudden shortening the time between two communications

I was one of the first email users. The “@” made it all magic: instead of printing letters or sending facsimiles, a simple text could be sent to friends. All of a sudden, as an undergraduate in the eighties, I was connected to that amazing professor far away I had met in a conference. He would answer – it was like a miracle! I had friends who checked in. Emails sounded like letters back then, very nice and formal.

Over time, the number and types of email changed dramatically. I still get well-spelled emails, but more often emails that I receive or send have abbreviations that remain tough to understand for many users, “with” becomes “w/”, people send “(:” or “):”, and LOL is something that actually gets sent.

But, there are three reasons I believe email in its current form is bad and will have to change in order to catch up with time.

1)  Email is not scalable. I receive between 200 and 300 emails every day. If I move into a meeting, I often walk out with 20-30 more emails – in a single hour. There is absolutely no way to answer them all. Some of them are garbage and I trash them right away without ever looking at them for another second. That takes care of perhaps a third of them. All the others required an answer or some kind of response. On a good day, I spend two hours doing nothing else than generating these responses, and spending every gap of my day “killing emails’ on my BlackBerry. On a bad day, all I do is email. I do not have time to take care of them, even if I want to.

2)  Email is not the right communication. There are people who think of email as a key tool for any and all type of communication. Email has never solved a personal problem, it only makes them harder – it has the feel of being served! All friendliness disappears. Also, short back-and-forth discussions are no good with email, especially to get a time-slot or agree on something important. One phone-call of two minutes can save up to 30-50 emails. It is really amazing how I see emails going back-and-forth on trivia. Students, on the other hand, think that a question submitted by email is equivalent to a question asked in person – it will get answered. That is just not the case. It’s not possible to answer them all, and the way a question is asked – not just the words used – matters for the answer. Email doesn’t work for many answers.

3)  Email will not survive in its current form: There is a simple reason for this. I have a strong belief that the number of emails received from any given email account will have a strong tendency to increase, irrespective of the discipline and focus of the recipient. I have tested that hypothesis with friends, business partners, professionals and slackers. As we communicate with more people more often, email will run out of usefulness because of reasons 1) and 2) provided above. Everybody will have the problem I am fighting with every day. The most important resource I have—and no technology is going to change that—is the time I have. The quality of the communication is the first thing to go out the window, and then the communication itself. Email will not make it as it is.

I believe that email and electronic communication in general is therefore ripe for innovation and entrepreneurship. Any solution we can think up needs to address the scalability and personal communication challenges addressed above. The platform which carries personal communication will have to address how email communication is transitioned. Thus far, social networking messaging tools have not done a very good job of that. It’s just collecting another email stack someplace else. The only advantage is that the stack is typically smaller and so it’s less frustrating for the owner. But, I always think that e-communication looks like the golf course in Caddyshack—ugly piles of dirt all over the place.

Solutions to these challenges involve tools that learn about priorities. I have never once been to a talk by the Public Policy program. I think this program is great, and I wish I could go to these talks. But, I have never been. So, why is the email showing up the very same way as my CFE invitations which I attend every week? There have to be better options to opt out of email lists! To send emails to the College we have only a few options: all faculty, all staff, all students, etc. Well, I may always want updates from the CFE, but not all of the people like them and they should be able to opt out without major hassles. I have absolutely no clue how to possibly handle that.

Similarly, I think local communication in a group of collaborators should not be done by email. There should be chat-tools and data-exchange tools on desktops or websites that allow simple answers and prioritization. Most of the things we care about as collaborators is highly important and should be fast. So, email just won’t cut it.

I look forward to the ingenuity and innovative spirit that will address this challenge that, I believe, is a true sign of our time. We spend more time communicating with our computer terminals and smart phones than talking face-to-face. So, we better do it efficiently, scalable, and in a fashion in which the use of tools and their technology evolve together.

Comments (2)
  • Rohit

    March 27, 2009

    While I agree that the amount of email is constantly accelerating, I believe that organization can be salvation to this constant problem. Perhaps not all emails cannot be responded to, but with future software, all necessary email can be responded to. As society becomes increasingly paperless and eventually cashless, I believe emails will continue to exist long into the future.

  • Mem

    July 15, 2011

    World’s running, and it’s hard not to chase mainstream.

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