'The Future of Email' ... Looks a Lot Like Twitter


For hundreds of years, communication across distance relied on a single technology: the letter. You cared; you thought; you wrote; you waited for your reciprocation. And waited. And waited. Time, as much as space, defined the letter as a communications platform. The hand-scrawled message demanded deliberation and, on the other side of it, patience.

In the digital age, of course, analog letter-writing -- as art or craft or conversation or whatever else -- has become quaint, which is to say nostalgia-driven and ridiculously inefficient. Why would I write a letter when I can send an email? But more importantly, at the moment: Why would I write an email when I can send a tweet, or a Facebook message, or (to be fair) a Google+ note? Though we're nowhere near the end of email, what we are approaching is the possibility that email as we know it today -- solid, stolid, removed from our other online interactions -- will be increasingly integrated into the social platforms we use to learn and share information.

The latest harbinger of that transition is Fluent, a new service that integrates with Gmail (and eventually, its creators say, with other email platforms) to deliver messages in the flowing fashion of a social media feed. The service, built by a team of former Google developers -- the guys responsible for Wave, but don't hold that against them -- converts Gmail's grids into a message-sharing service that's more dynamic and fluid than any kind of letter-writing has been before, giving way to an inbox that's not a box at all so much as a Twitter-like feed of information.

Fluent is selling itself as "the future of email." And it's selling that idea, in large part, on its speed. It's 20 percent faster than regular email, co-founder Cameron Adams told The Sydney Morning Herald, with "blazing fast search." Which means, Adams says, that instead of "having to receive a message, look at the subject, click on it, read the conversation, and then decide what to do, we sort of present you with the information that you need to immediately action on it."

Action on it, indeed. While email's whole reading-and-responding process is, to be fair, maybe not quite as laborious as Cameron is making it out to be ... hey, faster is better, right? Why opt for clunky boxes when you can have dynamic feeds? And what self-respecting denizen of the digital age would ever prefer the slow over the blazing fast?

Except, and not to be too curmudgeonly about it: Slowness, in this age of constant connectivity, is its own kind of value. Most of our current communications technologies -- the phone call, the text message, the tweet -- drive against the qualities that hundreds of years of letter-writing have represented: the thoughtful, the deliberate, the unrequited. The text-and-tweet are insistent, and their insistence is implicit; they expect their replies right away. And they are fair in that expectation, because as technologies they are, at their core, about talking rather than text: They're conversational, promoting not only the intimacy, but also the immediacy, of speech. (Or, as Walter Ong might put it, they promote the textual semblance of speech.) Writing and its associated virtues simply aren't what they're about.

Email, on the other hand, is a print technology in the McLuhany sense of the term. It is writing, with all the deliberation and decoration and permanence that the category implies. In that, it's one of the last remaining refuges for communication that takes its time -- communication that doesn't demand, that doesn't require, that is perfectly happy to wait its turn. The delayed response is built into the infrastructure of the thing. There is something immensely valuable about that, that modern-day incarnation of silence and slow time, particularly in a world that is increasingly defined by the speed of feeds and flows. There's something nice, actually, about looking at the subject, clicking on it, and reading the conversation. And then -- and only then -- deciding what to do.

Image: Library of Congress.