Please stop trying to kill email

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It boggles my mind that we still have the battle cry in the tech world around killing-off email. Various tech startups starting trumpeting the goal of killing-off the evils of email over a decade ago but email still endures. It might be tough for folks to fathom, but email is really a very effective tool if used properly.

I understand the needs of the various cloud software companies doing project management systems to try and carve-out a niche at the expense of email, but it is misguided effort. There are many challenging aspects of email and how people screw it up, but the threaded email chains we all continue to live with are not going away no matter who or what tries to destroy or “disrupt” it. Email is effective as an asynchronous tool to communicate with the world. Can we please just acknowledge this and move on?

The Generation Gap

Back in the 80s and 90s, the written letter was “The Man” and as a teenager and into my 20s, I had disdain for having to write letters and formally respond to others via the printed application, form, or letter. Using email to communicate asynchronously on bulletin board systems and later via the Internet was a breath of fresh air. No longer did I need to sit down and write a formal letter to others, get a postage stamp, mail it, and wait for a phone call or letter back many days later. Email gave us all something really close to instant gratification.

Nowadays, it’s email is the “The Man” for the younger generation. Forget about the written letter. The semi-instant gratification with email is usually not immediate enough for those under 30. The immediacy of messaging tools like Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, and whatever the fad of the day happens to be is quite seductive. The farce that messages disappear or expire is also very attractive to kids and young adults as they become more aware of their digital footprint on the world. Email is thought of as structure and as a corporate tool. So, it makes sense tech startups wanting to entice new users play to the disdain of the apparent dinosaur that is email.

The truth is that the “free” and paid communication tools of the day have come and gone. Also, there really is a need for some decent accountability on what people write, how people respond to others, and what people commit to doing. Email hasn’t gone away in business for these reasons. Different generations might not love it, but it works well enough to displace all that was done decades ago with a lot more paper, pens, and typewriters.

The Common Straw Man Arguments

Just because many people misuse a tool, it doesn’t necessitate the displacement of the tool. The arguments against email are often rooted in a incorrect attribution of what it actually is useful for in the real world.

  • Your email inbox is a to-do list: Many people make this mistake and try to turn an inbox into a to-do list or something. You can “star” the heck out of things and/or flag what you want, but this is not really effective. You are much better off actually using a tool that was meant for individual collaborative task management. Wunderlist and other tools are much more effective. The better tools focus on tasks and can notify via multiple methods. Just because email is not a decent to-do task list, doesn’t mean it should be displaced. Use the proper tool.
  • Email is not IM: If you use email in the hope of instant communication with others, you are going to be frustrated. It’s not going to work. People have a wide range of understanding on acceptable response time on email. You need to deal with that. Just because someone doesn’t respond to you immediately on an email doesn’t mean email is broken and doesn’t work. It means that you probably have unrealistic expectations that haven’t been communicated to others prior to your request or you should use another form of communication that would be more effective for your instant need. Use the proper tools.
  • Email is not a replacement for human contact: I cannot tell you how many times I have had misunderstandings with others over email on sensitive subjects or issues because words and tone were taken the wrong way. It happens. Of course, we all need to remember that email is not going to provide the same level of empathy and understanding humans achieve when you able to talk with someone in-person or on the phone.

Email is not going away. Your startup is not going to kill it and you are much better off focusing on creating real value that people and organizations will want to use because it is more effective and innovative then the tools they have today.

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