Why E-mail Sucks and 3 Ways We Need to Improve It

Let me get this out of the way: I don’t like e-mail. And this is coming from someone that might respond to only a handful a day. I know people that easily spend hours upon hours reading to and responding to lengthy e-mails not because they want to but because they have to.

To put it bluntly, it’s stupid. A waste of time, absurd, tedious — there are a lot of ways to describe just how silly e-mail has become. But most importantly, it’s old. Archaic even.

Whereas social media, and even my generation as a whole emphasize being able to instantly connect with one another, e-mail takes time. Sure, sending and receiving e-mail is pretty close to instant. But it’s not there yet. It’s still stuck in the 1990s when the web had to be dialed into via a 56k modem. How do we fix it? Here are a few solutions that I think would work:

1. Emphasize Simple and Concise: Part of my problem with e-mail is that we often have to dress it up in order to not come off like a jerk or an idiot. That’s a waste of time. What social media has proven is that communication doesn’t necessarily have to be lengthy in order to be thoughtful. Like social media, e-mail should be simple and to the point. If somebody sends an e-mail that doesn’t necessarily warrant a response, it should be okay to not respond or simply say okay. This is something that should be stressed in all aspects of writing (being to the point, that is), but particularly as it relates to e-mail. Nobody likes reading long-winded, repetitive e-mails.

2. Make It Less Intimidating: E-mailing superiors or potential clients that you don’t necessarily know has always been something that has forced us to take a step back and consider our words very, very carefully. What do we say? What if they misinterpret my message? That’s a problem because it also means that we have to put a lot more thought into the process of drafting an e-mail. Why can’t we simply express our point in a brief message without being chastised? Last I checked, nobody died from the actual act of sending an e-mail (but they may have died as a result of the actual content of the e-mail). And it also shouldn’t be an underlying concern every time we write something.

3. Make It Instant: No, it doesn’t take long at all to send and receive e-mail. Seconds, maybe a few minutes at most. But that’s not nearly quick enough. It should be something that, like a conversation, can garner responses in real time. When Google began testing the eventual failure that was GoogleWave, it largely emphasized being an instantaneous way to communicate with others through mail (and collaboration, among other things). Like Facebook chat and Twitter, it allowed us to essentially ‘chat’ with others in real time. It was smart, but due to a confusing user interface and an even more confusion regarding its place in Google’s product line, Google decided to stop working on it as a standalone product. It didn’t fail because people were afraid of the ramifications of instant e-mail, it failed because the interface was poorly thought out.

Right now, e-mail is like writing a letter. And, if you were born within the past few decades or even later, chances are you’ve done very little of that. Unfortunately, with e-mail we’re forced to try to familiarize ourselves with a form of communication that has all but died. Letter writing is fine when it’s targeted towards a girlfriend or boyfriend or family member. But towards random strangers? Not fun.

But it doesn’t always have to be a tedious experience. Like all things, it can be improved. Maybe there won’t be a day when ‘sup’ is an appropriate way to introduce yourself through an e-mail, but hopefully someday soon that 150-word letter will be able to be distilled into a 50-word conversation.

Can huge ideas be translated into simple text exchanges? Maybe not at the drop of a hat, but the only way we can know for sure is to try.



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