Communicating and Why I Quit Email (Episode 1)

8:22 PM

In the early 90s, the constraints imposed by dial-up speeds made email my primary interface for interacting with the Internet. Services like Juno made it even easier to connect, subscribe to listservs, and to surf the self-curated content that was the Web--in my inbox. Had I been born a little earlier than 1980 or had I a more computer-sciency bias imposed by my parents or peers, I might just as easily started with Usenet. But. I did not, and email was my entry point to online communications.

In the early days of AOL, they implemented this fantastic feature on their proprietary email client: if sending emails to/from AOL account holders, you could see the read status of the message and, if the message was unread, you could remote delete it. These two features have been rebel rousing in my head as I approach the first month of my hiatus from personal email.

That is correct. I quit email.

For me, the problem with IMAP/POP3/SMTP (Exchange/ActiveSync, BlackBerry, iCloud, etc)... the problem with email is that it doesn't solve any real (actual or imagined) problem well. Email provides this thin service:

  1. The Sender is allowed to send any arbitrary text message (permitted length not always known/guaranteed, UI rendering of content not known/guaranteed) with a (sometimes permitted) optional binary attachment(s) (availability of which to Recipient depending upon client is unknowable) to a valid Recipient (string'@'string'.'string).
  2. If an Author sends a valid message to an invalid Recipient or if a trapped error occurs during delivery, the mail exchanger will return an error.
  3. The Recipient is guaranteed to receive all valid messages sent to the Recipient's address, if the delivery attempt succeeded.
That's it. While various clients (GMail, Thunderbird, etc) have (sometimes greatly) improved upon components of email's core weaknesses, none has succeeded in being more than a really good band-aid on untenable platform. I have used email to try to solve notifications, scheduling, reminders, planning, archiving, bartering, trading and so, so on. Email has failed to solve no other problem quite so spectacularly as it fails to solve the problem of communication.

Ground -1. One-on-one physical, verbal, direct, close-proximity communication with my wife. I get:
  • To Start a dialog
  • Immediate, visual cues that what has been said has been heard, acknowledged and understood
  • Immediate opportunity to correct failures in hearing, acknowledgement or understanding of a given item
  • To End a dialog
Simply by speaking one-on-one, we can quickly define the problem ("What to order for dinner?"), explore the problem ("What did we eat last night? What are we in the mood for? What will the kids eat?"), and solve the problem ("Pizza."). At every exchange in the cycle, we know whether we've been heard, whether we resolved the problem, and when we're done

Anyone who manages or co-manages an organization larger than 1 person implicitly knows the right tools to communicate with their team on daily chores: dinner, shopping, house/car/lawn maintenance, changing diapers vs feeding the baby. No sane person ever selects email as the tool for this conversation. Yet the same people, with the same implicit understanding about the nature of communicating, will (without thinking) choose email to communicate the organization of office lunches or product failures.

As inferior a tool email is at communication simple tasks, its failure rate begins parabolizing as the complexity of the subject matter increases. Would you pick email out of the toolbox to approach the "I forgot our anniversary" subject? Natural language communication makes it possible to seamless transition from apology, to night on the couch, to reckless (and expensive) expression of love, to night on the couch, to sincere and heartfelt apology, to forgiveness.

Communication itself is inherently volatile. Under the most optimum conditions, I routinely fail. Spectacularly. Our individual capacity to communicate and maturation of the components of the skill: reading subtlety and subtext, expressing nuance, employing empathy, listening, speaking, not-speaking--vary wildly by age, time of day, coffee levels and mood. Choosing the right communication tool doesn't give your skillset a shot of human growth hormone, but choosing the wrong tool can be the equivalent of voluntary amputating your pitching arm, and choosing email as the tool is akin to amputating both arms and batting with your mouth.

To my mind, Google Wave's ultimate failure rested not on the poor execution of the platform itself but on the non-existent explanation of the problem Wave was intended to solve. Natural communication incorporates all of our senses with real-time, tactile feedback. Any attempt to bring communication online must preserve most of what we get out of the box from Nature and it must incorporate many of the new tools we have implemented in the digitical space.

Email does not do this, nor can email do this. I do not believe that standards can solve the issue for email either. In fact, I cannot envision a solution at all.

However. I can stop participating in the problem. By selecting email out of my digital gene pool, I am forced to find tools that actually solve my comminications issues.

  • Yes, it does mean the proliferation of narrowly focussed tools. 
  • Yes, it's inconvenient for 100% of the people with whom I communicate regularly. 
  • Yes, noone but me likes this idea.
  • Yes, next to noone will stop trying to use email to communicate as a result of this extroversion.
  • Yes, my spam folder is overflowing with "assisted suicide" offers as a direct result of this decision.
  • Yes, I admit that even though I have stopped sending email--I have still checked it once or twice to be sure I am not really insane.
Still, I have not missed an important event or failed to follow through on a task as the result of not using email; and I have 10% more of my day to work on things I care about.

We will see what month #2 has to offer.

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