One of the most interesting discussions I had in San Francisco two weeks ago (where I was co-presenting Mobile 2.0 and the Mobie Tech 4 Social Change camp) was with Brian Fling on the unlikely subject of email. We both agreed that we hate email (a common sentiment these days) and that something needed to be done. I don’t know a single person who actually doesn’t roll their eyes these days when the subject of email comes up. Kids these days already refer to email is “something I use when I want to communicate with old people.” Ouch!
Email as a medium is not keeping up with how we interact, how we do our jobs, how we live in the modern world. It’s overtaken by spam (encouraged by its nature as an open and free medium and the relatively little it costs to send out emails in bulk). It has no intrinsic trust mechanism (and developments like sender policy framework are basically a band-aid and do not address personal trust circles, only whether an email is from where it purports to come from). Email has no intrinsic semantics that allow email clients to do anything useful with them. Even advanced email clients can do little to help with this mess. Email is actually follows a typical trajectory for innovation. In the book Why Things Bite Back, Edward Tenner takes us through a history of technological innovation and why some innovations have “unintended consequences.” The unintended consequences of Email have become all-to-clear: lost time, “inbox anxiety,” spam and “BCC cultute” are only some of them. My view is that email is fundamentally mismatched with an “always connected” world – and these days we are always connected – and it’s been hopelessly outpaced by the far more powerful social paradigms of social networks. Email is a monster which has grown to enormous proportions and which we are all spending our time feeding, to the detriment of our real lives. Email can also be ambiguous. I receive so much email that I have to filter my CCs into a separate folder which I don’t look at as often – but then people will CC me on a message that requires my urgent attention and get annoyed when I don’t respond right away. Email woes are accentuated by the fact that no significant innovation has happened in the world of email clients in 10 years.
Imagine a life without Email.
Need to get in touch with a friend? Use Twitter “direct message.” It’s much more difficult for you to be spammed, because you control who connects to you. Bonus: you have to be terse. Need a longer conversation? Use Skype or another IM solution. Need to send someone a file? Again – IM. More immediate and you KNOW the recipient has received it. How about you need to arrange a meeting or a drinks out? Social networks provide all the mechanisms you need for this. Need to share a file with a large number of people? Use a Web-based sharing service like Google Docs or Zoho and then alert them using one of the means above.
Ok – technically most of the services mentioned above require access to an email account (for registration and identity verification). Zipiko is an example of one that doesn’t – you can sign up with only a mobile number.
I imagine an email-free world as a kind of utopian existence where people no longer spend hours and hours of their time each day “clearing their inbox” or methodically filing mail away into meaningless folders. Close your eyes and visualize it with me.
Crazy? Someone at IBM is already living the dream.