Why you shouldn’t email (much)

23 November 2008

(Bit late on this one, sorry)

One of the things picked up and kicked around the Internet last week was the story of how Bill Clinton “only” sent two emails during his entire presidency. And one of those was a test. This is in stark contrast to the 40 million of his staff and his vice-president (who sorta invented the Internet, didn’t you know?) as well as, of course, Barack Obama’s phenomenal online success. The thing that irks me most is the use of the word “only” in that. Bill Clinton may be an extreme case, but he had the right idea: email is something where fewer is better.

E-mail is largely a terrible, terrible thing. Not just because of the problems with spam and phishing (on which there’s loads of really useful info from the EFF) – that’s an implementation problem, stemming (mostly) from a simple failure on the network’s part to authenticate who an email’s getting email from, or authenticate which servers can forward email on to others.

Email’s terribleness is a more structural problem. For starters, there’s the curse: Your email address is used nearly always as the means of confirming and authenticating your account on any website (and in these Web 2.0 days, there’s a lot of sites) and of course every time you set up such an account, you get added to the site’s mailing list, and every single last friend request, notification from them. Such email – banal messaging from someone whose address you’ve willingly given – was coined “bacn” – in an analogy to spam by some utter fuckwit. Why is this person a fuckwit? Because bacon, proper bacon, is the best thing on earth, while “bacn” is just plain annoying.

I ruthlessly purged these a few months ago – unsubscribing from them as well as nearly every email newsletter I’ve added over the years (or if there is no unsubscribe option, filtering them as spam, because that’s what they are). It’s simple and mechanistic and doable, if a surprisingly tedious process.

The other problem is more of a human one – the “forward” button and the various, terrible uses of it: lazy forwardings of virus scares to everyone they know, news stories forwarded by those annoying “email” links, tediously long and irrelevant tracts sent to me with a non-explanatory “FYI” on top. Inevitably, they only increase the noise ration and correspondingly decrease my trust or tolerance of the person who sends them to me. Filtering these is harder, as you can’t set up something to say get rid of the dull shit (GMail alas isn’t that good). Telling people to stop sending them raises the possibility of a socially awkward situation. Now with my personal email at least, I just hit delete.

What both have in common is that these messages are not conversational; they’re anti-social if anything, churning out some often inconsequential message not caring what reply they might get. Every new email is a distraction, and if it’s about nothing important, then it becomes an annoyance. So you start ignoring the annoyance, and believe me there’s nothing worse than letting them pile up and (in extreme cases) eventually declaring “email bankruptcy“. I reached the point several months ago where I just got tired of email, after using it for nearly 13 years. Hell, two more and I could do a Donald Knuth and quit using it altogether as anything other than something where I stash my Amazon receipts.

Aside: Knuth quit email in 1990, saying he had enough. 1990! It’s astounding we got where we are today without packing it all in.

Anyway, I have purged the crap and now adopt a much tighter policy on what I even read. I now get between 2-5 emails in a typical day, and the difference is remarkable – it means I can read them all. So this isn’t a rant against email per se – it’s still useful, I’ve discovered. But it really needs to be used sparingly or else it becomes no use at all.


2 Responses

I understood that the US president was not allowed to use email because of security concerns. Dubya gave it up when he came into office and it’s said that Obama must too.

Yeah, that’s right about the problems of Presidential email – both security concerns and the Presidential Records Act pretty much confine the president to the world of paper.

I agree with your main point – my personal email is now, effectively, a slightly unwieldy combination of an online storage space for information I want to keep, a way of quickly getting activity notifications from various web services, and a method of verifying my identity. (Actual communication with most people generally happens over IM or via Facebook or some other web service)

But the fact is that there are other services that do all these things better, seperately, and there’s no particular reason why they should all be lumped into the same app. It’s really only Gmail’s impressive storage capacity and search, plus the fact that it archives Gtalk conversations as well, which keeps it as being central to a lot of my online life.