People love to hate on e-mail. I find this kind of amazing, given how essential it has become in our lives and how much better it is as a communications tool than anything that came before.
I sent my first e-mail in 1994. Work account, not sure I had ever truly considered the odd @ sign on the keyboard before that. I remember being on the phone with a friend who lived across the country and batting back and forth our own versions of “Mr. Watson, come here” messages with the click of a button, amazed they were actually showing up on the other side. “You know, we can attach documents to these things,” he said at one point, a notion that was beyond my ability to comprehend at the time. How would we do that? Where do the pages go? Won’t they fall off?
And now, it seems universally despised. This advance that replaced the ludicrously inefficient process of picking up the phone and actually demanding to speak with someone, right then, to exchange thoughts or information. This thing that took the last real example of jaw-dropping communications technology, the fax machine, and rendered it completely obsolete. This thing that turned the Postal Service into the Pony Express.
Why is this so? I’m taking a shot here, but let’s start with the sheer volume of messages we receive, and how few we actually care about. Quick scroll through Twitter and you’ll find no shortage of sophisticated and technologically aware people venting and flirting with declaring e-mail bankruptcy - a mass delete that results in a kind of First World nirvana known as in-box zero.
Spam, phishing, chronic “reply all” offenders, there are plenty of systemic downsides to this particular form of interaction, to living at an address with a @ in the middle of it that a whole host of nefarious characters can find, barrage, hack or otherwise abuse.
But, to me, that hardly makes up for the enormity of the advance that e-mail represents as a communications tool. Biz Stone went on Charlie Rose with Ev Williams a couple months ago to talk about their new platform, Medium. But the most interesting and true thing he said had to do with e-mail:
“E-mail is like the most intimate witness to our lives, in some capacity, and yet it hasn’t changed since the days of Hotmail and before. We keep files in there, we share pictures of our kids in there, there are receipts in there. E-mail knows a lot about our lives. I’ve been dying for someone to recreate e-mail and just come at it from a completely different angle. Like, show me all the pictures in my e-mail as a photo album right now. Show me all the Excel spreadsheets. Just present it to me in a different way … it’s ripe for reimagining, and someone will do it.”
Biz is right. Again. Particularly in an age of social media and selective sharing, e-mail is true, e-mail is real, e-mail is us. It’s the most accurate and unfiltered version of ourselves, at least the part that relates to corresponding and sharing with others.
Our first personal e-mail accounts were on AOL, like everyone else. Accessed via dial-up modems on Dell computers. Think about that, our primary link to a Web-enabled world was placed in the hands of AOL, Dell and dial-up modems over telephone lines, and it still felt magical. The first real advance we experienced in electronic communications, after the arrival of “always-on” cable modems around 2000, was getting on Gmail in 2005. A revelation. Essentially unlimited storage, messages didn’t auto-delete after a few days, a truly “searchable” archive, clean and functional design. We loved it, stopped paying AOL and never looked back. We had the best e-mail service in the world, and have enjoyed it for years, without ever spending a dime or clicking on an ad - but that’s probably another post.
And the messages piled up. Hundreds, thousands, we lost count, lost control. The occasional mass delete, clicking boxes on dozens of Google Alerts and e-commerce solicitations that missed the mark. But the database was always there, growing, “managed” in name only, like a garden hose waved vaguely in the direction of a California brush fire. Like walking through life hauling the digital equivalent of Santa’s sleigh behind you.
The second great advance in the relatively short history of e-mail was mobile. Suddenly, we could carry our in-boxes around with us, on our person, liberated from the desktop and able to correspond from anywhere.
The combination of Gmail and mobile leads to the third great advance in our e-mail experience, an iPhone app named Mailbox, specifically designed (for now) to be used with Gmail accounts.
A few weeks ago, the cool kids on Twitter were buzzing about this new application, which was taking reservations for accounts. I threw my name on the list, about 100,000 people ahead of me. Waited my turn and, upon activation and a tap of the screen, my entire Gmail account was archived – I had a clean in-box for the first time since, well, 2005.
It was a little jarring at first, to see this comprehensive database just disappear, but the messages were still there, they just weren’t in my face every time I went into my e-mail account. It was a fresh start, a new beginning. A better version of bankruptcy, one that didn’t result in credit problems or having to hire a lawyer.
The whole objective of Mailbox, as far as I can see, is to give users the tools to maintain this important state of equilibrium. Messages arrive and are dealt with through three basic swipes that – respectively – archive the message, delete the message or snooze the message, which is then delivered again after a period of time you designate. Deal, delete, or delay.
The vast majority of the mail I get falls into the instant delete category, so I rarely opt for the snooze function, but it’s a terrific and customizable option. The whole experience has changed my perceptions of e-mail management. I feel like this communications tool, incredibly important in my life, is finally under control and able to be processed in an orderly and effective way.
This is what my in-box usually looks like now, and I hope it never changes.
I’m all done.
Please, someone, quick, send me a message. I know just what to do with it.