Why does email suck so much?

And every little email I wrote was like a special little letter, like I was getting a little hug from somebody, and I was returning it with a little hug. A dozen people in a little network, an international network of hugs. And it felt so awesome.

— Merlin Mann (of 43Folders fame), Inbox Zero Tech Talk

Yeah… I remember that.

When was the last time email felt like that? And why doesn’t it now?

Spam’s not the only reason email is no longer a special network of hugs.

Why does email suck? How much of that suck is spam, or the expectations we put on email as a communication medium, and how much of it is just bad software design? Does the medium (and/or the medium we use to access the medium—e.g., mail clients) serve our needs or make things worse? If so, how or how not?

What do you think?

No Comments

  1. Dave O. says:

    It’s just a matter of volume. The smaller the volume the more likely you’re only having conversations with people who really matter. The larger the volume the more likely you’re getting business- or acquaintance-related email. You just have to stop being so popular to get back to that special network :)

  2. Funny that I just finished complaining about spam when this blog post showed up in my news reader.

    I believe email sucks so much right now because there’s virtually no way to prevent spam from being sent. Filtering spam at the receiver side is easy, but it seems to require a genius to prevent spam at the sender side.

    This wouldn’t only turn emails back into little hugs, but it’d also drastically reduce bandwidth usage. How many percent of all email is spam again?

    Pipe dreams, unfortunately. Sigh.

  3. When it started, many people who found it were explorers, and explorers are interesting. Today it’s just another thing that everybody does.

  4. Dagny Gromer says:

    A group of friends and I were talking about the unreliablity of email vs. IM, etc.

    I think the problem is sending email is a "free good", which implies that it will overused until there is absolutely nothing to be gained form the next email sent. It’a also a "tragedy of the commons" type problem.

  5. Rev. Dan says:

    > How much of that suck is spam, or > the expectations we put on email as > a communication medium, and how > much of it is just bad software > design?

    I don’t think e-mail sucks because of either spam or bad software design. E-mail sucks because human beings, on the whole, don’t write well. Nor do they seem to care about writing well.

    "imok… wut ru doin’?"

  6. bongoman says:

    I think email rocks. I suppose if you expect email to be like getting ‘little hugs’ then, yeah, it must suck.

  7. John Athayde says:

    It goes back to the lost art of letter writing. Before the new fangled internets, people actually wrote letters to each other. This was prolific as recently as the 1940s/WWII generation. The advent of cheap long distance, the 3.5 hours a day the average american spends watching the television, and the always on information society have relegated letters and the postal system as a quaint reminder of a simpler time.

    People used to write well. My grandparents still have impeccable penmanship and write very nice and legnthy thank you notes. I can barely read my little brother’s handwriting, and mine was not much better until I forced myself to block printing during Architecture school. Writing reflects on one’s upbringing in the same way that the mode of dress or personal hygine do. If an individual shows up in a suit utilizing SAT vocabulary words and the like, people will think of that person as being more cultured/better educated/etc. as opposed to the individual with their jeans barely hanging on around their ass, the hat turned to the side, substitutuing letters for words and dropping ending consanants. Pop culture almost encourages the appearance of a lack of education.

    As to email, specifically, people don’t think before they hit send. The carbon copy culture in the office innundates people with emails they don’t need to read. The more junk coming through the pipe reduces the value of the system, and in doing so, messages that once held value are now buried under a sea of crap, and therefore not worth digging out. Or if they are dug out, the enjoyment of them is reduced from the agony of the aforementioned digging.

  8. I was asking the same kind of questions after watching that presentation, and it really made me see that email had changed around me.

    Now it’s utilitarian, and it seems like most of the warm and fuzzy interactions I used to use email for have migrated to social networks, leaving behind the more commercial aspects. And as with any commercial system, after a while the free-wheeling aspects that come with its development and maturation need to eventually be refined to reflect the new reality it faces.

    Standards grow (albeit, slowly), and so must those for how email clients and servers talk to each other to bring down the signal-to-noise ration.

  9. Amy says:

    What’s GREAT about this is that everybody (including me) has a different answer to my question!

    This makes me unreasonably giddy and happy. Quick, somebody check me… I might have blog fever!

  10. Chris says:

    We’re starting to shift toward internal networks for our hugs rather than email systems. In fact, we’ll get email notifications about our hugs from Myspace rather than the email hug itself.

  11. Eric Mill says:

    I wonder if it doesn’t have more to do with people’s changed attitudes towards the web. When I began using the web, I surfed idly, devoted lots of time to particular websites (like theonion.com), was still "figuring out" email etiquette, and spend lots of time crafting details emails to people.

    Now, I have an RSS routine which keeps my surfing to almost zero. I usually spend only as much time on a particular site as I need to to absorb the information my RSS reader brought me there to learn, writing emails is a routine endeavor (more of a chore), and they’re shorter now than they used to be. Also, for communications with people I don’t see often or haven’t in a while, email isn’t the primary way for me to contatc them, with some long missive — now it’s Facebook or Myspace, with some short "Oh my God how are you?? message.

    The culture is different, and I am different. I don’t think it has to do with the protocol, or the medium.

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