Email Is Still the Best Thing on the Internet

The gentle, dependable workhorse that everyone relies on and nobody owns
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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.

* * *

Looking at this list of email's many current uses, it is obvious that some of these tasks will leave its domain. Each person will get to choose whether they use email as their primary identity on the web. Work and simple social messaging will keep moving to other platforms, too. The same will be true of digital delivery, where many cloud-based solutions have already proved superior. 

So, what will be left of the inbox, then? 

I contend email might actually become what we thought it was: an electronic letter-writing platform.

My colleague Ian Bogost pointed out to me that we've used the metaphor of the mail to describe the kind of communication that goes on through these servers. But, in reality, email did not replace letters, but all classes of communications: phone calls, in-person encounters, memos, marketing pleas, etc.

The metaphor of electronic mail never fully fit how people use e-mail. But, now, perhaps it might. Email could become a home for the kinds of communications that come in the mail: letters from actual people, bills, personalized advertisements, and periodicals. 

This change might be accelerated by services like Gmail's Priority Inbox, which sorts mail neatly (and automatically) into categories, or Unroll.me, which allows users to bundle incoming impersonal communications like newsletters and commercial offers into one easy custom publication.

That is to say, our inboxes are getting smarter and smarter. Serious tools are being built to help us direct and manage what was once just a chronological flow, which people dammed with inadequate organization systems hoping to survive the flood. (Remember all the folders in desktop email clients!)

It's worth noting that spam, which once threatened to overrun our inboxes, has been made invisible by more sophisticated email filtering. I received hundreds of spam emails yesterday, and yet I didn't see a single one because Gmail and my Atlantic email filtered them all neatly out of my main inbox. At the same time, the culture of botty spam spread to every other corner of the Internet. I see spam comments on every website and spam Facebook pages and spam Twitter accounts every day. 

Email has gotten much smarter and easier to use, while retaining its ubiquity and interoperability. But there is no one company promoting Email (TM), so those changes have gone relatively unremarked upon.

This is what email used to be (Wikimedia).

But recall Hotmail in 1996 or Microsoft Outlook in 1999 or—and I know some nerds will hate me for saying this—Pine over a telnet connection in 1993. Compare it to Gmail today or Mailbox on an iPhone. The process of receiving email has gotten so much better, friendlier, and more sophisticated. 

And one last thing ... This isn't something the originators of email ever could have imagined, but: Email does mobile really well.

While the mobile web is a rusting scrapheap of unreadable text, broken advertisements, and janky layouts, normal emails look great on phones! They are super lightweight, so they download quickly over any kind of connection, and the tools to forward or otherwise deal with them are built expertly and natively into our mobile devices. 

All this to say, email has soaked up many of the great things about the current web. It's pretty. It's convenient. Algorithms work over the raw feed to simplify the flow of information. Email, generally, is mobile-friendly and renders beautifully on all devices. These are the things that the current generation of web companies strive to accomplish. And look at old email, doing all that effortlessly.

While email's continued evolution is significant, what it has retained from the old web sets it apart from the other pretty, convenient apps. Email is an open, interoperable protocol. Someone can use Google's service, spin up a server of her own, or send messages through Microsoft's enterprise software. And yet all of these people can communicate seamlessly. While various governments have done what they can to hassle or destroy anonymous email services in the post-Snowden world, email is one of the more defensible and private parts of the mainstream Internet experience, especially if one is willing to go through some extra security procedures.

Last, Silicon Valley startups seem to be able to offer the great experiences that they do because they centralize our information within their server farms. But email proves that this is not necessarily the case. Progress can come from much more distributed decision-making processes. The email protocol evolves based on the deliberations of the Internet Engineering Task Force, not by the fiat rule of a single company in Silicon Valley or New York.

And what's changing isn't a product that must be rolled out to all users, but an ecosystem that provides niches for all kinds of different emailers. 

Perhaps the way, then, to recover some of the old web, before the dominance of Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, isn't to build new competitors to those companies, but to redouble our use and support of good old email.

Email—yes, email—is one way forward for a less commercial, less centralized web, and the best thing is, this beautiful cockroach of a social network is already living in all of our homes. 

Now, all we have to do is convince the kids that the real rebellion against the pressures of social media isn't to escape to the ephemerality of Snapchat, but to retreat to the private, relaxed confines of their email inboxes. 

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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