The Triumph of Email – The Atlantic

Email is neutral, meaning that anyone can email anyone else with an email address. If you have a person’s email address, your message will be delivered no matter who you are—whether the recipient is your oldest friend, your granddaughter, your boss’s boss, or Beyoncé. The year the web was born, this flattening effect was astonishing. Anyone in an organization could communicate directly and immediately with anyone else, “regardless of rank,” as the The New York Times put it in an article about “computer mail” in 1989. That neutrality is part of what makes email so special. It is, however, what makes inboxes overflow, too.

In 2016, instead of being the subject of romantic comedies and love songs, email is at the center of conversations about digital overload and work-life imbalances. The words “drowning,” “avalanche,” and “tyranny” are used. People resent their inboxes because they are not in control of them. Email takes a psychological toll. It “emotionally weighs on us,” said Alex Moore, CEO of Boomerang, which offers a suite of efficiency tools like email scheduling, snooze features, read receipts, and reminders.

“We let email interrupt us dozens and dozens of times a day, and that is awful,” Moore said. “There’s research out there that says every time you get an email notification and you look at it, it takes you 64 seconds to recover. You basically can never work. You’re constantly recovering from the notification.”

“We’re stressing ourselves out,” he added. “We’re living in notification hell. That’s really the thing that’s at the root cause of why people hate email.”

Mike Reddy

With more communications platforms to choose from, people aren’t using email as they once did. Today, there are too many real-time communications platforms to track. Along with email, people can chat through tweets, Gchat, Yik Yak, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Viber, Skype, HipChat, FireChat, Cryptocat, and—perhaps most popular of all—text messaging.

Slack, a real-time messaging platform built for the mobile era, may be the best known example of what business communications might look like in a post-email world, but many companies bill themselves as inbox destroyers. (It’s not an overstatement to say Slack can vastly reconfigure a person’s relationship with email: The Atlantic has used Slack since 2014, and, for me, it’s been transformative.) In the pre-Slack era, I worked in newsrooms that used Skype and Yammer. Asana is a project-management tool that promises “teamwork without email.” For email-free task collaboration, there’s also Trello and Basecamp, among others.

In Silicon Valley, the question of what comes after email is already dated. In the newsroom where my colleagues and I used Skype, more than five years ago, one colleague, a website developer, refused to use email on principle. Lately, I’ve seen promoted tweets from a company, Ryver, promoting itself as the the product that will replace Slack. In 2011, Robert Half Technology polled 1,400 executives and found that more than half of them believed real-time communications platforms would surpass email by this year. Some people argue that’s already happened.


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