Jeff Atwood recently had an interesting post questioning the value of email as a medium, echoing similar sentiments by Merlin Mann and Tantek Çelik. All of them, not to mention other A-list bloggers, seem to share the belief that an email client’s ability to collect messages indefinitely outstrips the user’s ability to attend to them.
I’ve always been skeptical about how these bloggers use email, probably because I’m not important enough to get that much. Using email has never been the cornerstone of my job description. Recently I was sick with an inner ear infection, and after five days of not opening my email (I never open my email unless I’m absolutely sure I’ll process it to zero), there were less than 400 messages in my inbox. In my last job, where I did get a lot of email and processed it at least hourly, I still thought that claims of massive email backlog were exaggerated — until I saw my co-workers’ inboxes. But rock stars in any domain, like Merlin or Jeff, have popularity issues that would persist regardless of the medium.
Less is more
Tantek prefers IM and Twitter messages to email.
I’m probably responding to less than 1 in 10 emails that are sent directly to me, and even fewer that were sent to a set of people or a list. The usability of email for me has deteriorated so much that I exclaimed on Twitter: EMAIL shall henceforth be known as EFAIL.
Tantek believes, if I understand him correctly, that email tends to be overwritten because senders try to batch too much information in each message to reduce the need to send more messages. That saves time for the sender, but demands more of the receiver.
I agree, but we all have different ideas on how to use email. I think there are two types of senders: those who treat an email like a letter, and those who treat it like a postcard. I’m squarely in the postcard camp, preferring one thought or request per message. Imagine going to your mailbox and getting 80 letters to read each day.
But aren’t short emails cold? I don’t think so. I think cold is cold. A gregarious person sending a short email can infuse more warmth in two sentences than a curmudgeon can in two pages. As I’ve written before, I believe that any human expression is like a hologram — a fragment contains the integrity of the whole. A polite email is one that doesn’t wear out its welcome with excess verbiage.
My two favorite media are SMS and Twitter. As a writer, I have a perverse fascination with trying to pack as much content as possible into a 140 or 160 characters. They’re like haiku for the 21st Century. IM, to paraphrase Robert Frost, is like playing tennis without a net.
What’s your relationship with email?
I happen to think that most of the discourse on email overload is, well, loaded. The discussion tends to be monopolized by victims of their own success. What about those of you in the trenches?
- Are you getting too much volume?
- How many times do you genuinely need to check email each day?
- Do you process your inbox to zero, or chip away at it incrementally?
- Do you prefer letter-length or postcard-length email?
- Is there a better medium for workplace communication (IM, phone, wikis)?
- Which medium, if any, would you like to get rid of?
(Photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography)