Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

email as marginal technology

Courtesy of my New Atlantis colleague Ari Schulman I see this article by Alastair Croll lamenting that his "inbox is broken . . . in a fundamental, inboxes-will-never-be-the-same-again kind of way." Only a minority of items in his recent email inbox, he says, were conversations he had with other folks; the rest were "records of things I’d done, people who’d followed me on social networks, bookings I’d made, confirmations of sites I’d signed up for, and so on." And he wants his email inbox to be the one place where all the pieces of his social life are organized.

I wonder how many other people will be wanting the same thing in the coming years. I think of my sixteen-year-old son for whom email is a completely marginal technology: it tells him when someone has posted something to his Facebook page, but he already knows that information anyway. His mom and dad are almost the only people who communicate with him via email. If you simply took his email account away from him I don't think he would miss it at all. And he's not unusual in this respect — many of my students only check their email to hear from their parents or their teachers.

Maybe we do need a centralized inbox for our lives, but it seems unlikely to me that email will be the place where that happens — except maybe for old codgers like Alistair and me.


  • Ari Schulman said...

    Say, that's an interesting link!

    I tend to agree with Croll's take. It's hard to tell exactly what he thinks, but I don't think email is going anywhere. It just, as Croll suggests, needs to get smarter. As a recent college student myself, I suspect your son's habits will change a lot when he gets to college. Professors, organizations, employers--all want something with the permanence and professionalism of an email address when contacting people.

    Facebook does have the distinct advantage of allowing you to contact someone without having to keep track of some textual address. But in contrast to email, Facebook exchanges, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter updates are ethereal, difficult to search, archive and manage. They quickly disappear into the void. In fact, I think it's precisely the permanence of email that makes young people prone not to use it: they simply have too much of it and don't want to take the time to dig through the meaningless stuff (Facebook notifications) for the meaningful exchanges. (And with that enormous amount of information, who would want to keep it permanently anyway?)

    So if we're going to have central inboxes of some kind, any of them are going to be prone to the same problem as email -- wildly varying degrees in the purpose and importance of the messages. I think what's needed are just some smart ways of automatically sorting and organizing these messages, along the lines Croll suggests. And part of that might be hinted at by technologies like Google Reader, where it makes much more sense to have an aggregate of feeds than to have individual email notifications for each message.

    Probably the future inbox won't be a single box, but might still be a single place that gives access to each of the types of messages. Google obviously has its eye on that with the Gmail/Reader suite; but as Croll suggests, they have a lot more to do. In the meantime, I am making very liberal use of the Gmail delete button for Facebook notifications, and the Send & archive Lab option for moving messages out of my inbox as soon as I respond to them.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    This is all very well said, Ari. I think you're right that Google is trying to make its apps into this all-purpose depository — and I've bought into that (not without some trepidation) — but for many younger people that might largely be for work-related stuff. My students, as I say, seem to be content for the personal lives to be contained in scattered and ephemeral media like Facebook and texting. Maybe that will change for them . . . but maybe not.

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