Do you remember hating email?
I do. I love it now; somewhere along the way, I flipped. It wasn’t the first time; when I first got an email address it was magical, and Gmail changed my life. These days, email feels like one of the parts of my relationship to the internet where I have the most individual control and agency.
Do you remember loving email?
The dominant experience of email today is fractured. When I bring the topic up with friends, people will declare a fierce hatred for it – and think of it primarily as a work thing. I think that’s a clue.
A few years ago, the company I work for now acquired the company I worked for then. The acquiring organization switched thousands of employees from Google’s gsuite to Microsoft Outlook. I liked even my work email, back then – but here’s the secret: I was treating it like I treat my personal email.
I was only reading it when I felt like it. The rest of the time, it was just the sort of base account that everything else is hooked up to, and a centralized search system for when I needed to dig up some old piece of information. It’s sort of an automatic filing cabinet that I can occasionally glance through to see if anyone has taken the trouble to write me a personal letter in. This means: thousands, or tens of thousands, of unread messages.
I didn’t love it, though. I started falling out of love with email when Google made and then destroyed Inbox. I won’t rehash why it was better, or spend too many words on my ever-deepening antipathy towards Google for their value-shredding ways. Suffice it to say, gmail made email better for me, and I loved it – and then it made it worse, and I stopped.
The acquisition happened, I was forced into Outlook, and I basically set fire to my filing cabinet. It was part of my acquisition-grief, maybe. A reference to my earlier career in tech support, where I spent ages carefully walking office workers through getting the files Outlook stored their email in under the 2 GB sanity limit of the tech of the time. Mass deletion. A new me! “I’ll start inbox zero.”
I tried, and then – only then – did I manage to hate email. I didn’t notice right away. But between outlook and trying to actually handle everything that came in – no. No thank you.
I’ve never tried this with my personal email. There’s no need to; gmail still does a decent enough job automatically filtering things such that when someone writes me personally, or I have an order update or an account thing I need to handle, I find and dispatch it trivially.
Newsletters are in, though. They’re Good, Actually. People writing thoughtful and interesting things for one another to read, when and if they want to. And they’re in my email, and I like them there, but I don’t always find them there, because they’re not personally written to me. Gmail thinks they’re “promotions” or “updates” and on some level maybe they are. If they were serious they’d have a “subscriptions” tab, but – well.
Because email is coupled to calendaring, I haven’t managed to move off gmail. Hey seemed maybe-good, but also maybe in this “email as productivity thing” zone inbox zero lurks in, and, calendaring.
I appreciate email for what it is, and I think it’s fundamental enough that people have mostly stopped loving or hating it, especially in a personal context, and just… taking it for granted as a thing that’s there, working, remarkably well, for everyone to fall back on. Is this the way a successful technology should be? Or is this email being in the way of things that would serve us better? I think in the work context especially, the second may be more true.
Points of Articulation
- I’m probably undercounting gmail’s sorting/tab automation in keeping me there because I liked Inbox’s version better
- No, I’m not going to address that.
- I’ve had my gmail address for so long (and from such a specific time) at this point that it’s part of my identity; I think this is generational.