A problem manufactured to create solutions
Email is overrated as a normal person problem. But you would never know it from the coverage of tech journalists or the dramatic rollouts of email “solutions” like IBM Verse (18 years late to the webmail party), Google Inbox, or the recent Gmail for Android redesign. For upper-level managers and VP/C-level executives, email is almost all there is. In June 2006, Paul Graham wrote:
“If you ask eminent people what’s wrong with their lives, the first thing they’ll complain about is the lack of time. A friend of mine at Google is fairly high up in the company and went to work for them long before they went public. In other words, he’s now rich enough not to have to work. I asked him if he could still endure the annoyances of having a job, now that he didn’t have to. And he said that there weren’t really any annoyances, except—and he got a wistful look when he said this—that he got so much email.”
The real lesson here is not to be eminent, but the more obvious one is that email is a tax on “productivity.” The latter term has become so overloaded over the past century, to the point that it is now meaningless. To have email is to have problems, and to have problems is, increasingly, to have no time at all. Cue Quinn Norton:
“We multitask, we update, and we conflate status with long hours worked in no paid overtime systems for the nebulous and fantastic status of being Too Important to have Time to Ourselves, time to waste. But this incarnation of the American dream is all about doing, and nothing about doing anything good, or even thinking about what one was doing beyond how to do more of it more efficiently. It was not even the surrenders to hedonism and debauchery or greed our literary dreams have recorded before. It is a surrender to nothing, to a nothingness of lived accounting.”
Ok, so the plague of productivity, often borne by the rat of email, is obviously entrenched in U.S. workplace culture. So why did I say email was “overrated,” if it has such depressing consequences?
Because it’s just an amplifier, rather than the source, of the problem. If email didn’t exist, Facebook or Slack or something else would pick up the slack. There would be tons of clients for those services, made by top developers and designers who would have no choice but find a replacement for email. “Solving” these new media would become the topic of numerous Medium posts and Verge articles – and a key indicator that the writer/user was serious and busy.
There’s the problem. Plenty of us have already “solved” email simply by not using it. I get maybe 5 personal account emails, tops, each day, most of them auto-generated or promotional. I understand that this admission disqualifies me from being an Eminent Serious Person, but it also relieves me of a constant “problem” of sorting through stuff that by and large doesn’t matter.
Even at work, where I may get 20 emails a day, 19 of them usually require no action. I could reply to some – i.e., with “Thanks, I’ll keep this in mind” – but a lot of those responses would be political exercises. Email is a lifestyle choice, not an intractable force.
Moreover, I think a lot of people don’t care about email, in the same way that they don’t care about calendars, maps, or Microsoft Office, as Benedict Evans pointed out in a recent tweet. Through the lens of the tech press, you’d think that email was one of the top problems facing humanity today. Through the lenses of my eyes on the subway, I see every phone on Snapchat, Facebook, or a Web browser, not an email client.
So what is email good for?
Email is the price of admission to a certain segment of the culture, meant to exhaust workers and ultimately preserve the status quo. Which is too bad, since it’s a powerful enabler of thought – as long as you’re writing in drafts.
In high school – probably the peak of my email usage, since it was still a novel tool for me back then, plus it had no competition at the time – I wrote a lot of long emails that contained small plays and novellas in them. I have since found this behavior hard to replicate outside the inbox, no matter what writing tool I use.
I think the magic of email draft writing is that it feels important. This feeling is the same reason, I imagine, why so many tech writers and business executives fall over themselves about email – even when it hurts, it feels good to humblebrag about getting hundreds of messages a day and signal the status that comes with that admission. Email is literally going somewhere, after all.
Other writing media have less obvious routes to dissemination. Even a blogging CMS carries with it the implication that the post may never be read in its entirety or at all. Emailing almost guarantees an audience. That’s what makes it good for writing and excellent as an enabler of anyone hungry for attention and imagined prestige.
Have you ever written an epic email? Did it feel effortless? You wouldn’t have written that missive first in Word or Pages, right?
Email can be a liberating medium for the writer. I’ve never figured out why – maybe it’s the notion that, when in an email or webmail client, what I’m writing isn’t really writing. Email isn’t exactly high fiction in its content or poetry in its structure. It’s mostly noise, but sometimes you need that “noise” to trick yourself into thinking that what you’re making has no value and that there’s no pressure. Email excels there – the vast majority of it (spam) isn’t even read, so you’re in good company.
Brent Simmons had analogous thoughts on email’s relationship to blogging a few weeks back:
“[T]o the people who send email, to me or to any blogger: please consider publishing what you write instead of emailing it. Not because email sucks, but because more people than just me should be able to read what you wrote. You have something to add to the discussion.
If it makes it easier to compose in your email app, then that’s fine. That’s a good approach to writing blog posts — imagine you’re writing an email to a friend, but then publish it.”
Email is great for drafting out:
- Point-by-point rebuttals to articles/posts you disagree with
- Cover letters (seems like Word et al are just too high-stakes-feeling to make these seem right)
- Guides (I’m guessing because a significant volume of email is explaining how to use things, e.g., via customer support channels).
I came up with something from scratch in an email client – Apple Mail – today. I’ll post it soon.
If you like Android but are either fatigued by or unhappy with Google’s burgeoning product portfolio, then you’re in luck. Android is super flexible and lets you replace any of Google’s popular consumer-facing apps with 3rd-party alternatives. You can do this without even rooting your phone. Simply choose the alternative app over the Google app when given the option, by tapping it and then tapping “Always” in the dialog box:
Replacement: Link Bubble
Link Bubble is mobile browsing reimagined. It doesn’t look like any other browser and is instead an overlay (a “bubble” that loads your links in the background and then can be expanded when you want to read them. I’ve written a more detailed guide here.
Apps: Google Search/Google Now/News and Weather
Replacement: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories
If you’re tired of tracking and privacy breaches, DuckDuckGo is a good bet. It has a simple, lean search engine that doesn’t engage in filter bias, so you’ll see the same results as everyone else: no “personalized” results based on years of tracking. Founder Gabriel Weinberg aims to make DuckDuckGo the Craigslist of search engines, i.e., a reliable an simple service that sticks to what it’s good at. The DuckDuck Go app for Android also includes a nice news reader that draws from Reddit, the New Yorker, and others.
App: Gmail/Email (stock client)
Replacement: Kaiten Mail
Kaiten Mail is a $5 client (the free version is ad-supported, which I don’t recommend) with lots of customization options for look, feel, refresh interval, and display. It’s fast and has perks like a rich text editor. Most importantly, it features rich Jellybean notifications that you reply or delete a message from a notification. I only wish that it had a scrollable widget or DashClock support, but for now I can work around the latter using AnyDash Pro.
App: Google Drive
This one’s easy. Dropbox does virtually the same thing as Drive, with the exception of spreadsheet creation or saving to .gdoc format (neither exactly a pressing need on a phone in particular).
App: Google Keep
I like Google Keep, but it’s busy and is essentially a place for collecting junk from around the Web. Simplenote is dead simple but supported by Automattic (the makers of WordPress.com). It has tags, deep search, and a Mac app, too.
App: Google Play Newsstand
I like Newsstand’s widget and RSS support, but Flipboard was the original visual-centric reader. You can connect numerous feeds and editions, as well as your social profiles (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). The ability to create/curate custom magazines is a unique Flipboard feature.
For RSS reading, Press offers a much richer set of features and is compatible with services such as Feed Wrangler and Feedly.
App: Google Maps
Replacement: All-In-One Offline Maps
The only real competitors to Google Maps at the macro level are Bing Maps and Apple Maps, neither of which is available for Android. All-In-One Offline Maps is a clever app that lets you have offline access to maps, which can be handy if you just need a map and not an overwhelming social data mining solution.
Another easy one. WhatsApp and Skype both have more users. Tango is a comprehensive VoIP, messaging, and video conferencing solution. IMO is a hybrid messenger app that has support GTalk, Facebook, AIM, and others alongside its own Broadcasts service, which is similar to Twitter/ADN.
App: Google Keyboard
Now that Google has its own keyboard app (just a standalone version of the former Android Keyboard), any device running 4.0+ can download it. Swype is a capable 3rd-party alternative that feels slightly more accurate to me, at least for now. It also has a built-in voice assistant called Dragon.
YouTube is tough to replace because it’s a social location/hub more than an app. If you still need YouTube’s unique content stream and critical mass, TubeBox is a YouTube client with better multitasking support. If you’re looking to break off completely, Vimeo is an alternative to YouTube that sadly has only a lackluster Android app (its iOS app is much better).
ZenDay is a unique calendar/to-do list combo (something I’ve always wanted; I see less and less reason to have a standalone reminders app) with 3D animations. It has a steep learning curve, but can be worth it if you’re tired of the corporate doldrums of Google Calendar.
App: Google Wallet
NFC payments aren’t very popular. I keep Wallet around for paying at Walgreens sometimes, but I’ve made exponentially more purchases with the Starbucks apps, for example, which uses a simple barcode rather than an NFC chip.