Email Is Still the Best Thing on the Internet

The gentle, dependable workhorse that everyone relies on and nobody owns
You've still got mail, and you always will. (lansvision/Shutterstock)

All these people are trying to kill email. 

"E-mail is dead, or at least that’s what Silicon Valley is banking on," wrote Businessweek tech reporter Ashlee Vance.

There's the co-founder of Asana, the work software startup. Email has "become a counter-productivity tool,” Justin Rosenstein likes to say

Slack, the superhot work chat tool, likes to brag that they've "saved the world from over 70,000,000 emails" (if you assume that every five Slack messages prevent one email from getting its wings). 

And it's not just entrepreneurs with cloud software to sell. There are the young people, too, especially whatever we call the younger-than-Millennials.

Getting an email address was once a nerdy right of passage for Gen-Xers arriving on college campuses. Now, the kids are waging a war of indifference on poor old email, culling the weak and infirm old-people technology. One American professor maintained that, to his students, "e-mail was as antiquated as the spellings 'chuse' and 'musick' in the works by Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards." The vice-chancellor of Exeter University claimed, "There is no point in emailing students any more." The youth appear to think there are better, faster, more exciting ways to communicate than stupid email

Yet, despite all the prognosticators predicting it will—choose the violence level of your metaphor—go out of style, be put out to pasture, or taken out back and shotemail grinds on.

You can't kill email! It's the cockroach of the Internet, and I mean that as a compliment. This resilience is a good thing.

"There isn't much to sending or receiving email and that's sort of the point," observed Aaron Straup Cope, the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum's Senior Engineer in Digital and Emerging Media. "The next time someone tells you email is 'dead,' try to imagine the cost of investing in their solution or the cost of giving up all the flexibility that email affords." 

Email is actually a tremendous, decentralized, open platform on which new, innovative things can and have been built. In that way, email represents a different model from the closed ecosystems we see proliferating across our computers and devices. 

Email is a refugee from the open, interoperable, less-controlled "web we lost." It's an exciting landscape of freedom amidst the walled gardens of social networking and messaging services.

Yes, email is exciting. Get excited! 

* * *

For all the changes occurring around email, the experience of email itself has been transformed, too. Email is not dying, but it is being unbundled

Because it developed  early in the history of the commercial Internet, email served as a support structure for many other developments in the web's history. This has kept email vitally important, but the downside is that the average inbox in the second decade of the century had become clogged with cruft. Too many tasks were bolted on to email's simple protocols.

Looking back on these transitional years from the 2020s, email will appear to people as a grab bag of mismatched services. 

Email was a newsfeed. With the proliferation of newsletters, email alerts, flash sale emails, and other email-delivered content, one's email client became a major site of media consumption. It was a feed as much as an inbox. 

Email was one's passport and identity. Before Facebook became a true alternative for verifying one's identity on the web, the email address was how one accomplished serious things on the Internet. Want to verify a bank account? Email. Amazon? Email. Forums? Email. Even Facebook in the early days? Email. And it meant something where your email address was hosted. FirstName@YourLastName.com signaled you owned a domain. A Hotmail account might indicate you were a beginner and a Well address connoted early Internet connectivity. For a time, Gmail addresses were a sign of sophistication. Now, both the functional and symbolic importance of email addresses is in decline. There are so many more ways to signal who we are online now.  

Email was the primary means of direct social communication on the Internet. Email was how to send a message to someone, period. BBSs, chat rooms, and message boards have existed for as long as email, but email formed the private links between people that undergirded the public channels, which evolved before and with the web. Now, there are a lot of ways to reach someone on the net. There is one's phone, Facebook profile, Twitter account, LinkedIn, Instagram, Qik, WhatsApp, etc., etc. It's telling that in the mobile world, app developers want access to a user's phone's contact list, not her email connections. 

Email was a digital package-delivery service. After FTP faded from popularity, but before Dropbox and Google Drive, email was the primary way to ship heavy digital documents around the Internet. The attachment was a key productivity tool for just about everyone, and it's hard to imagine an Internet without the ability to quickly append documents to a message. Needless to say, email is a less than ideal transmission or storage medium, relative to the new services.

Email was the primary mode of networked work communication. Most companies would have a hard time functioning without email, the French company Atos's successful email ban notwithstanding. And it's this last category of email service that so many companies are eager to reform. HootSuite's CEO laid out why in a Fast Company article in 2013: Email is, he said, unproductive, linear, not social, and paradoxically tends to create information silos. Plus, who doesn't want some enterprise budget? Many startups, tiring of or failing in the consumer space, need to pivot somewhere.

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