Email refuses to go away, despite how much we hate it

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I receive, on any given workday, upwards of 100 or so emails, although receive probably isn’t the right word. Rather, they clank into my inbox from all manner of tryhards who “hope this finds you well.” It’s a constant disruption to the flow of whatever work I’m desperately trying to focus on. “Maybe this one’s important,” I often think.

They rarely are, but the emails keep coming all the same. The status of my personal Gmail account is sadly worse.

I’m no fan of email. It was created in one form or another in the early to late 1970s—depending on who you ask—and romanticized iconically in Nora Ephron’s 1998 classic You’ve Got Mail. Email was, at one point, ostensibly the perfect platform: Anyone connected to the internet can send a message to anyone else with ease. It’s near instantaneous, and messages are easily traceable and archived. As a technology, it’s hard to beat. 

But technology has since given us more communication avenues than we know what to do with: We text, Slack, Gchat, Tweet, Signal, post, DM, shout, and check in across ceaseless platforms. Yet, somehow, during these 50-plus years of technological advancement, email has remained not only relevant but imperative.

How has it avoided occupying a display case in the Museum of Obsolete Technology?

I want so badly to add the entire enterprise to the trash heap of technologies that have come and gone. It can join my Zune, PalmPilot, the hundreds of flash drives lost to time, and my Gameboy. Technology and innovation move relatively fast: One day you’re trading in your cassette deck for a CD player, and the next day your Zune is made obsolete by your phone’s Spotify app. (I loved my Zune, for what it’s worth.) That sentence will make absolutely no sense to future civilizations, and isn’t that the way it should be?

But nope, not for email. While it’s long past time for it to have been phased out, I don’t think I’ll get my wish. The average worker spends just south of 30% of their work day reading and answering emails, according to a McKinsey & Co report. And a 2019 survey from Adobe on email usage found that people spend roughly five hours a day checking work and personal emails. That’s more than half of our eight-hour workday lost to this anachronistic technology.

It’s partly because our culture has set it up this way, says Brian David Johnson, professor of practice at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. He suggests that perhaps this animus toward email is a me thing, which may be true. But I’d argue that our culture has changed to the point where email as it’s being used simply no longer serves us. For email to again fill the role we intended for it, it’s going to have to get much smarter in ways that actually makes our lives easier, rather than being a burden. 

Email persists because we designated communication for two modes: work and play

Like so many other disruptions coming for the professional world, Gen Z seems poised to kill email—in the office at least. “People who say that email is the best thing ever are probably of a certain age,” Johnson says.

A 2020 study from consulting firm Creative Strategies found that email was among the top tools office workers 30 and older used when it came to collaborative work. People under 30 preferred Google Docs, Zoom, and iMessage.

But truly ending email would be a mountainous climb. It’s stuck around for such a long time because it’s ingrained in the culture we’ve built around it. Somewhere along the way, email was designated as the tool for communicating at work, probably because it makes more sense than sending letters back and forth to get business done. Alternatively, as texting gained popularity in the late 2000s, it fell into the family and friends camp. We created unwritten rules that dictated how we interact with these communication technologies.

Email has remained critical in part because its use cases are simply broader than those for text messages or phone calls, explains Jon Fasoli, chief product, data, and design officer at Mailchimp. For a quick, clear explanation or more personal conversation, you hop on the phone; when you need a face-to-face without being in the same room, there’s Zoom; and when you need a record of a conversation, click through links, and a rundown of all the necessary information, we have email.

“What can fix your problem, or distaste, is the culture around the technology,” Johnson tells me. “Email and text operate on essentially the same idea, but the difference is the culture around them.”

How we communicate—the tools and culture at play—has changed over time, and email no longer serves us the way we intended. There’s no good way of quantifying the number of “important” emails people actually get any given day, but workers send about 40 emails a day, far less than half of the 120 they receive. And a Harris Poll survey found that employees tend to burn out on emails once they receive 50. It’s not perfect, but we can probably safely assume people are ignoring the other 70 emails in their inbox and don’t consider those very important.

My work inbox is filled with a bevy of PR pitches for stories I won’t write, newsletters I’ve barely read, and invites to events I have no desire to attend. When a coworker wants to chat, they use Slack, and executives and communications professionals I spoke with at a recent cocktail party (a rare invite I responded to) told me they do the same.

Even our personal inboxes are bogged down with spam and thousands of unnecessary marketing promotions and notices we’ll never read from businesses desperate for our money. Mine is chock full of promotions from just about every store I’ve ever bought something from and every website I’ve ever logged into—marketers just longing for a 10% response rate. Yet, only about a quarter of email offers from brands are interesting or compelling enough for customers to open, according to Adobe’s survey.

Nora Ephron convinced teenage me people sent wistful, heartfelt, salient emails to one another once upon a time, but the only actual person I get emails from in my personal life is my mother. (I’m not particularly proud of my response rate.)

lf email won’t die, maybe AI can make it better

Still, “email remains the dominant protocol for how small businesses communicate,” Fasoli says. “It’s the standard, or a standard. There are very few communications that are standard across the world.”

I guess innovation doesn’t always equal death, but if we’re so adamant about using a 50-year-old challenged technology, we can at least agree it’s time to upgrade how we use it.

Mailchimp, which provides marketing automation and email marketing services for businesses, is working to help personalize the email experience between their customers and their customers’ customers, Fasoli says. 

Personalization doesn’t mean just slapping someone’s name with a brief hook at the top of the email. The point is to have emails show up in your mailbox at the right time, with the right content and the right service or promotion customers need, he explains.

Society is “at a point where people operate on the spray and pray model, which means everyone gets all of the emails,” he says, referring to the marketing term for oversaturation. His goal is to have people receive fewer emails—they would simply be more personal, engaging, and thus, important. You would ideally go from receiving all of the emails to only getting emails specifically for you, that actually matter, and when you need them to.

One way we get there is through further implementation of AI, which both Fasoli and Johnson think can significantly improve email and our relationship to it. When an email address is in the Mailchimp system, Fasoli says, they know a lot about that email. That, plus the use of AI in theory, helps businesses know when to, let’s say, send me a specific, personalized email about refurbished Zunes.

From Johnson’s point of view, AI can help email work more like a personal assistant; responding to certain emails for you, organizing emails, and keeping unnecessary things out of view—all things email can, to varying degrees, do now. But the idea is to make less work for the user; make email smart enough to work for us.

But there are still so many ways in which email isn’t working for us. Our culture of communication is changing, as evidenced by the innovations coming to email that will—hopefully—adjust our relationship to it.

“[Email] has been around for so long, but there is this idea that you’ve lost control of it,” Fasoli says. “It’s not about more email; it’s less. It’s private, much more personal conversations,” whether that’s between marketers and customers or a public relations specialist and journalist. 

“That’s where I think the generic power of email will be retained.”

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