Ploughing through my Outlook inbox the other day, I was overcome with a sense of dread and loathing. I had the Damascene revelation that this will be a task that will never, ever end until my last dying breath, beyond employment and well into any retirement that I may manage to have.
This moment of clarity was reinforced by the kind of mail I was deleting, responding to, filing away or generally ignoring: unaddressed spam, circulars from long-forgotten websites, passive-aggressive communiques; all unwanted and all unlovable. And then a fundamental question occurred to me: “Does anyone actually like e-mails?”
Note that the question is emphatically about liking e-mails rather than needing them. In the modern world, we need e-mails. Far cheaper than conventional post (technically, e-mails are not literally ‘free’) and near instantaneous in their delivery, e-mails are responsible for revolutionising communications on this planet at a rate hitherto unimaginable by previous generations. They are also the glue that holds most companies or projects together, offering workers the opportunity to work remotely and to have an automatic paper trail for what has been agreed upon and what needs to be done.
So, given all these benefits and the versatility of the medium, why don’t I like e-mails and why do I suspect that many others don’t either? Here, in no particular order of grievance or irritation, are my reasons.
E-mails are too intrusive and cause anxiety
By their very nature and necessity, e-mails are intrusive, demanding attention the moment they ping into your inbox. Obviously some form of notification is needed so you know that something has to be dealt with or at least digested, but now that our e-mail inboxes are portable on our phones and tablets, there is no escape from the tyranny of the e-mail.
Notifications can be switched off, and all other forms of electronic communication also benefit from this, but there is a certain primacy that we attach to our e-mail correspondence that we don’t with other forms of communication. It most cases, it is how we correspond with our colleagues and families, the kind of correspondence that we shouldn’t ignore. However, the e-mail ecosystem has become polluted with spam either of our own making (see below) or of the unsolicited kind, and there is nothing worse than checking your inbox repeatedly for that important message you’ve been expecting, only to get another reminder from Amazon about that CD you don’t actually want.
As a result, e-mails cause needless anxiety, triggering a need for an urgent response when often one is not needed. E-mails have become the equivalent of calls to the telephone landline (remember them?) or the withheld call to a mobile phone. Who is it? What do they want? Is it important? And then we become either bitterly disappointed or irritated when our expectations are not met, and it transpires that it is just another sales call. As with telephony, as with e-mail.
There are other forms of electronic communications that are more appropriate
As I have already highlighted, e-mails psychologically have an association of importance for us. If a friend or colleague e-mails us, it must be something of significance. This may not actually be the case anymore, but deep down we still believe it.
And this is why social networks are good things for us, because we can choose the most appropriate form or channel with which to communicate with certain people or groups (and vice versa).
Want to tell a friend what you thought of the latest film? Put it on your Facebook wall. Want to crowd-source some information about a certain subject? Ask the question on Twitter with an appropriate hashtag. Want to busk for business? Do so in a relevant LinkedIn Group.
None of the above examples need to be conducted via e-mail anymore, and by choosing the right social network or channel to do so you can guarantee a warmer, more useful response too.
In addition, an e-mail (like its predecessor, the letter) is no longer the only acceptable substitute for the costly international telephone call. Free video conferencing tools such as Skype and Google Hangouts mean that you can catch up with distant friends, relatives and colleagues cheaply and at the click of a button. Even better, these video conferencing tools are integrated with social networks so you can see whether the people you want to talk to are online and available for a chat.
Isn’t video conferencing so much more preferable than hammering out a long missive in Outlook and then having to wait a week or two for the reply, as your correspondent puts off their response, knowing that they too have to write at equal length so as not to be disrespectful of your original effort (see my point about e-mail etiquette below)?
E-mails are a burden to yourself and to others, so why not just bypass them completely for a better form of communication?
So many of the e-mails received are simply not wanted in the first place
The majority of the e-mails you receive are simply not wanted or desired. Aside from unmistakable, left-field spam (which we will get onto), you have probably unwittingly consented to the majority of junk that comes your way. Buy regularly online? Expect offers and sales inducements. Stream music? You’ll get recommendations of what you should be listening to next. Signed up to a social network? You’ll receive an e-mail when someone comments on something that you’ve commented on elsewhere.
Most consensual spam can be dismissed or switched off at the source, but often we choose not to in case one of the notifications turns out to important. Online paranoia is a potent thing, so do you really not want to get the notification about being tagged on Facebook in that picture of you in that club on that stag do? And simple greed is potent too; if I don’t sign up to that e-mail list, I might miss out on the offers (which never actually come!).
So we only have ourselves to blame, for we so often create the e-mail traffic that grinds both us and our productivity down.
Spam is so well-known it hardly needs an introduction or much explanation. Unlike the e-mails described above, spam is truly unsolicited correspondence on the most random subjects. If your e-mail address has somehow ended up on a spammer’s e-mail list, you will get bombarded with requests and pitches that range from the sublime to the sinister.
Luckily, given the improvements in e-mail security, spam filters and firewalls, unadulterated spam seems to be on the wane or certainly less visible to the end user, but it still sneaks through occasionally, making your heart sink and inviting incredulity (“Who honestly responds to this stuff?”).
The lack of etiquette or agreed form
E-mails can range from a couple of monosyllabic words to the length of a short novella, and this lack of consistency and limitation often makes it difficult to construct or respond to an e-mail.
Are a series of short exchanges really necessary, for example? Would a telephone call or text messenger chat on a social network have been better? Probably yes, but we still fall back on e-mail for the simplest communiques when other mediums would have been better.
Likewise, who really wants to read a book within the body of an e-mail? Couldn’t this be placed within a more useful format such as a Word or PDF document? The answer is easily yes.
Someone would argue that the formlessness of an e-mail is its strength, but it is also a profound weakness. When an e-mail pings into your inbox, you do not know whether someone is looking for a quick reply or a treatise, and this adds to the anxiety of not knowing how quickly you ought to reply to the message or how long it will take you to adequately do so.
At least with other forms of communication their format implies their length and urgency. A text message is often for the here and now, and something that invites an immediate reply, as with a telephone call. A message through LinkedIn is of a professional nature, but is hardly urgent as no-one would expect you to be on that network all the time. An e-mail, however? What expectations do we have of that? We expect the person to be accessing their account regularly so we know that we can get hold of them, but there is nothing to really indicate the importance of the message bar the odd exclamation mark annotation that can bolted on.
One of the great strengths of e-mail used to be that you could add on other electronic documents that you could send to the intended recipient, whether it be a picture, video or text document.
Often, there were stresses and strains over file size limits and overzealous spam filters, as attachments seemingly failed to materialise. Luckily, however, with the advent of cloud computing and services such as Dropbox, sharing documents has never been easier (some cynics and Cassandras would argue it is too easy), and there is no need to send attachments on e-mails anymore.
One fear associated with attachments a couple of years ago was that they were compromised or malicious, digital Trojan horses harbouring all kinds of nasties that would wreck your computer setup. Although the problem has not been magicked away, cloud computing and anti-virus software give us reassurances of the identity of the sender and the safety of the download, which renders e-mail attachments a slightly rum proposition.
Just as one’s suspicions are aroused whenever you see someone use a public payphone in the age of the ubiquitous mobile phone, one is now perturbed when you receive an electronic attachment; “Why didn’t they send this to me via our Dropbox folder?” you find yourself asking.
The fact that e-mail has been bypassed for the transference of other electronic documents again implies that it is not as vital as it used to be, and makes the medium less essential and generally more irritating than it once was.
Am I being unduly harsh on e-mail? Does it still have value? Do you genuinely like it? If so, please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
My argument has not even got started. In Part 2, I will be exploring the problems and abuse associated with work e-mails, which also contribute to my general disdain of the medium.