How Email Became The Most Reviled Communication Experience Ever, Email wasn’t always a source of fear and loathing. What happened? And what can we do about it – really? by John Pavlus
Email, tech writer John Pavlus explains, tries to do too many things at once: People use it to manage projects, keep track of tasks, have discussions, transfer files and edit documents – sometimes all in one email chain. In the end, it doesn’t do any one of these jobs particularly well. Pavlus explains how emails became a constantly anticipated and frequently hated means of communication, and tells you what you can do about it. getAbstract recommends taking this article’s advice if you harbor a love-hate relationship with your inbox.
- In its beginning, scientists and engineers designed email as a simple way for programmers to communicate.
- The World Wide Web, the BlackBerry and the iPhone successively increased usage and availability of email.
- Many people can’t refrain from checking their email, but, at the same time, hate that urge.
- Gmail Inbox and Mailbox help users manage their emails.
- Let other apps do the jobs that email does poorly, for example project management.
When scientists and engineers working for the US Defense Department’s R&D division (DARPA) first created email, it was a simple way for programmers to communicate. The Arpanet, an early version of the Internet, connected various DARPA networks. “Sending messages along for the ride made sense.” The World Wide Web popularized email among mainstream users. In 2003, the BlackBerry unlocked email from office desks and made it accessible for businesspeople on the go. And, with the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, email became ubiquitous in people’s private lives.
“We’ve let email seep into every nook and cranny of our lives, and we resent its presence. But we also crave it.”
Many people can’t refrain from checking their email, but loathe that urge at the same time. Psychologist Larry Rosen explains that your brain perceives the constant possibility of monitoring your inbox along with the chance of discovering a treat as pleasurable. Of course, most of the time, you’ll be disappointed – so you check again and again.
“We may despise our inboxes, but we’re neurochemically compelled to make sure that there isn’t something potentially important lurking in there.”
For design expert Don Norman, email is not good at any particular task. People use it for instant messaging as well as for crafting well thought-out arguments – and everything in between. Meanwhile, Norman says, it “creates a context where attention goes to die.” People also use it to manage projects, keep track of tasks, send files, collaborate on documents and have discussions. Justin Rosenstein, co-founder of Asana [which offers a task management app], agrees that email tends to get overloaded with tasks it’s not good at. And yet, it will likely be around for some time to come. To deal with email’s shortcomings, fix parts of the system:
- “Attention” – You can’t stop emails from coming in, but you can manage them. Gmail Inbox and Mailbox help users weed out unimportant emails. Still, you need to go through your emails all the time – or accept that you might miss something.
- “Scope” – Don’t expect email to do too many jobs at once. Move tasks that email does poorly to other applications, such as Asana (for project management) and Slack (for internal communication).
- People – To some extent, people themselves are to blame. Decide whether you want to spend your time monitoring email or doing something else.
About the Author
John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, Scientific American, Technology Review and other outlets.