E-mail has become so ingrained in our culture that the French had to write into law that you don’t have to check your work e-mail when you go home. Over the last twenty years, it has, like so many other features of the digital age, replaced countless old techs: the memo, letter writing, the bill/invoice, and as anyone with an e-mail address knows around the holidays: the coupon. It is one of the great and disrupting technologies. This information is nothing new. The first e-mail was sent in 1971 and the form of communication was bound to take over.
For something we use all the time, it’s a not very intuitive product. The best inboxes are essentially customizable crap. Gmail, Google’s email service is one of the worst offenders. We get what we pay for. Since Gmail is convenient and free, it’s also a complete nightmare. Since introducing the platform in the early years of the new millennium, Gmail hasn’t gotten quantifiably better. It wants to evolve into a better specimen, but just keeps growing extra limbs in the laboratories of ambitious product owners who we suspect aren’t actually using the product. Clearly they’re too busy adding options to ever personally check or use their email.
We used to think Inbox and Trash would be enough. But then we needed Spam, and Starred, and then came Important, All Mail, Notes, Circles (?), and finally Google shattered the Gmail Inbox into pieces when they introduced Primary, Promotions, Social, Updates, Forums. Now, Gmail guesses where your e-mail should go before you ever see it. This “special feature” can be turned off, but most users won’t go looking for the settings until an email from the Boss lingers in the spam folder just long enough for it to become a problem you (seriously) never saw coming.
The litany of problems doesn’t stop once you’ve changed the settings to (hopefully?) turn off auto-sort. Some advancements turned out to be double-edged swords. For those who enter into chain correspondence, the conversation view is a godsend. Instead of dozens of e-mails clogging up said inbox, all the replies and forwards go into one chain. Except when you get e-mails out of order. If the same person sends two e-mails in a row, it will prioritize the most recently received e-mail. Most days a person won’t even realize they’ve received two messages. (See: Boss wondering why that report isn’t finished – wait, what report?) This is alone enough to send a person to the settings panel – assuming you can find it – to turn conversation view off. It’s the perfect solution until you see just how many unique e-mails are created by turning the feature off. Inbox Zero, you say? Ha.
Speaking of not seeing important messages: how does Gmail decide what to put below the ellipses in a response? Until it happens to you, you might never have noticed that Google will hide your signature (if you have one, and everyone should.) It’s all fun and games until you type an extra dash in the notes about that report and hide your entire reply!
What does an ideal inbox look like? What would happen if you were to strip away everything about e-mail except the inbox and trash? It would be clean, simple lines, but then you’d notice some things that bothered you. Eventually you’d add on a spam folder to make sure that there’s a place for all the offers of sex pills and lottery money that you didn’t know you’d won. Then you’d find a way to de-clutter it, and automatically put all your conversations into a chain so that you didn’t have to scroll through all your e-mails to find that note from the Boss about that report. You’d start hiding information that you didn’t want to see over and over, and eventually you’d end up right where we are now. Even with all it’s flaws, we’d still rather go digging for an email than take a phone call.
Email hasn’t gotten any better is because even in its worst state, it’s still entirely better than anything else. It’s like what Winston Churchill said about democracy: it’s the worst form of government, except for all the others. E-mail is the worst form of communication, except for all the others.
@chrisjohngilson is not dead, he writes about music for Pancakes & Whiskey, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Paste, Splitsider, and elsewhere.