Getting Rid of E-mail

RIP E-mail
Last year I wrote an article on when not to use e-mail. In a nutshell, you shouldn’t use e-mail:

  1. To communicate bad news, complaints or criticism: Deliver it face to face or at least by phone. Not voice-mail either.
  2. When you are seeking information that is not simple and straight-forward: Walk down the hall or pick up the phone and ask for it directly. 
  3. When you are seeking approval on something that is involved or controversial: Same answer as #2: in person or by phone.
  4. When you’re sending a few people complicated instructions: Go visit them, or phone them, instead.
  5. When you are asking for comments on a long document (probably attached to your proposed e-mail): Sit down with people one-on-one and walk them through it (or collaboratively using screen-sharing technology, paragraph by paragraph, with changes and corrections displayed real-time).
  6. To request information from a group on a recurring basis: Automate it or otherwise embed it in the business processes
  7. To convey instructions to a large number of people: Put it in a policy or procedure manual or a self-paced e-learning module or use an interactive e-learning/videoconferencing tool
  8. To achieve consensus: Face-to-face, or videoconference or at least audioconference. 
  9. To explore a subject or idea: Use Open Spaceor face-to-face, or videoconference or at least audioconference.
  10. To send news, interesting documents, links, policies, directory updates and other ‘FYI’ stuff: Post it, where those who care about it can browse or RSS-subscribe to it.

With the exception of situations 6, 7 and 10 (where you need a ‘sticky’ place to post information where it won’t get lost), these “no e-mail” situations are all more effectively addressed in real time. I developed a flowchart to capture this, but it takes a lot of words and takes up a lot of space.

As I’ve become (thanks to Gen Millennium role models) a fan and a reasonably competent user of IM (takes some practice but even we geezers can manage it), I’ve added an 11th situation when you should not use e-mail:

  1. For simple, unambiguous, straightforward requests for information, requests for approval and instructions, to one or a very small group of people. IM instead — IM lets you get an immediate response, and you can migrate to voice, and send files too, when necessary.

Recently I looked through my 500 most recent work e-mails and my 500 most recent personal e-mails. I concluded:

  • Over 95% of the work e-mails and personal e-mails could have been more effectively dealt with face-to-face, by phone, desktop video or IM. By effective I mean it would have taken no longer, and resulted in clearer, more personal communication.
  • Excluding responses (and responses to responses), I receive twenty times as many e-mails as I send. My ‘sent mail’ file messages virtually all begin with “re:”. In other words, I almost never initiate an e-mail ‘thread’ (I just can’t get myself to call e-mail and discussion forum threads ‘conversations’, because they’re really not). 
  • In those rare cases when I initiate an e-mail, I generally should use a real-time tool (phone, f2f, or IM) instead. In a few cases I use e-mail at work when the recipient is a luddite (i.e. never answers the phone, which I think is rude, arrogant, and unprofessional, and is never available f2f, and doesn’t have or doesn’t use IM). But that’s surprisingly rare. And I send personal e-mails only when I don’t have the recipient’s IM.
  • The vast majority of work messages I receive are notifications and ‘FYIs’ (usually with long attachments I will never open, let alone read). In almost every case there is, or should be, some place where these could more appropriately be posted, where I (and the other multiple recipients) can browse (when we actually need to) or subscribe to them. In most other cases (when some action from me was required), a f2f visit, IM or phone call to me would have been more effective. 
  • My personal e-mail inbox also includes a lot of notifications — comments received on my blog posts, RSS updates, things I’ve subscribed to. If e-mail were to suddenly disappear, I could just as easily get all these on an RSS subscription page and browse and deal with them there. Some of my received messages are from readers and friends sending me links or articles. These are generally from people who (a) don’t have blogs or or other feeds I can subscribe to and (b) don’t use IM (or twitter). But I’ll get you all over to one or the other, or both, eventually!

So, what I’m saying is that if I had no e-mail address (and for that matter, no voice-mail box), I’d get along just fine. I’d send and receive lots of spontaneous IMs (including those in skype, twitter and second life) that sometimes migrate to voice-to-voice conversations. I’d get my exercise at work walking the halls to visit with people, and learn to be a better phone conversationalist. I’d use RSS to create my own personalized newspaper of important things to read, and I’d tweak the sources and filters so the volume was just enough to be comfortably manageable in the time I have available for reading. And I’d go home from work every night with nothing in my work inbox, and to bed at night with nothing in my personal inbox.
I think a world without e-mail is completely viable, and would be incredibly liberating. After all, e-mail has only been around as the principal means of business communication for ten years (I’m told it first surpassed fax in 1998).

Many in my grandfather’s generation refused to have anything to do with voice-mail when it came in — they thought it was a waste of time. Many in my granddaughters’ generation feel the same way about e-mail. Both generations realized the value of conversations — real-time, contextrich, rapidly iterative — over asynchronous communications.

Maybe we should pay attention.

This entry was posted in Using Weblogs and Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Getting Rid of E-mail

  1. Dale Asberry says:

    I’ve posted a comment about this post on your friendfeed thread

  2. Craig says:

    Great post as usual. Reminds me of something I read a while back imagining what it would have been like if the telephone had been invented AFTER email had been. Paraphrasing, it went something like, “Wow. You should check out this new invention called the telephone. You can punch in someone’s number and actually TALK to them!!”

  3. EJ says:

    For me email is the only answer in many situations- people I am trying to reach not in their offices (some of work but outside mostly – don’t even have “offices”) and email can be sent/received/replied to at everyone’s convenience. The phone easily becomes a game of phone tag.But I would like to add another email no-no: First introductions/contacts especially business.Cheers!Eva

  4. mattbg says:

    I agree with a lot of your ideas about where e-mail is inappropriate. I have an aversion to using the phone, for some reason — I just hate the phone. I’m more inclined to go in-person, use e-mail, or use IM. Not sure why I don’t like the phone. Maybe because, even though I’m near the end of the generation that’s supposed to like the high-tech stuff, I hardly ever used the phone when I was younger. I lived in England and you had to pay for any phone call, and my family (rightly so, I think) just didn’t see the value in it.But… e-mail does have some uses. It’s a great work queue, I think. There are people that say that queuing is an inefficient way to use e-mail, but for certain types of tasks it’s a great way to unintrusively ask someone to get something done. It’s great for notification of changed states in a process. IM, in-person, and phone calls are intrusive (even if you let the phone go to voicemail) and I can read an e-mail faster than I can listen to a voicemail, anyway, and have a much more precise record of what’s required. I also find I am a bit more articulate via e-mail.Of course, some people can’t communicate effectively via e-mail and you’d have to use other means if it’s not working. But I find that many people are quite good at it. Some people can’t communicate effectively using any means and may just get angry so that you will come back with something — anything — that helps them inch closer to an articulate statement about what they want :)

  5. tim says:

    That’s all well and good if you live in a synchronous world. But if you happen to work with people across time zones, then real time is just not an option, and email is king. The king is dead! Long live the king!

  6. Siona says:

    I LOVE email. Sometimes I feel my fingers communicate more fluently in English than does my tongue, and one of my favorite things about email in a work context is that it creates an instant archive of whatever task is being worked on. There’s no “I thought you said…” or “You never told me…” or “I already let you know…” that can’t be resolved through a quick search of the communications. Of course I’d prefer it if these exchanges were done on wikis so that the information flows were public, but barring that, it’s a lovely second choice. And I love what a few of the others conversationalists here have written: email is an easy thing to prioritize and collate and organize and track. If I didn’t get to respond and communicate in this way, I’d spend a terrible amount of time trying to coordinate phone calls and meetings. Of course it has shortcomings, but so do most things. And it certainly beats the pink slips and memos most offices used to use to communicate. ;)

  7. I second Siona’s views. Communication is both an art and a practical science. The context and purpose for it are primary – the method should suit the need and frankly, much communication is between persons who do not share a personal relationship and messages are best left at a level that is impersonal, written so as to be a legal record and easily transmitted for review at one’s convenience.And Dave, for someone who is big on communication among icons in second life where people adopt identities far from who they are -well, I just don’t see how that form of interaction is necessarily any more genuine than any other form of non face-to-face discussion.I have intensely personal relationships with people thousands of miles away via email because it is best suited to our needs. In facct, the quality is often improved in such communications because IM and phone require an immediacy of ideation that is intersting in terms of spontaneity but often lacking in depth if considerable thought needs to go into a particular topic.Rules don’t have much sway in the realm of communication as long as the needs of the participants are served.Barb Rubin

  8. Charles Knickerbocker says:

    Thank you for this great piece. As a tech evangelist it has added to the scope of my interest in online collaboration. I’d be curious to see the flowchart; a link to it in the article would be good.And in support of your points made… I’m glad you mentioned this in your Twitter, otherwise I would have missed it.

  9. Jon Husband says:

    One useful way to increase effective communications is to acknowledge and honour that some people at the other end of the line prefer, for their modes of expression email for some purposes.I think it’s good to focus on effective uses of all the other means, but Siona raises good points and it’s just one of a range of tools that displays a message of some sort .. indistinguishable, for example for IM chat messages except for the context / frame.That incomings aggregate in an inbox, and the UI and filtering / mgt of that interface is probably more of the issue from any given individual user’s perspective .. but it is indeed useful to recognize that it might enhance communications with some people whose main tool it may (yet) be.But no doubt it is becoming a tool from the past.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    I hear you, and I agree that, as long as it’s the only way to reach some people, we can’t get rid of it. But I think, with practice, and following the lead of the generation coming, we will see it all but disappear like fax did before it. My communications are with people all over the world, and I make time for real-time conversations with them because they are much more effective than e-mail. One of the keys to this, as I’ve suggested before, is opening certain slots in your calendar to allow people to book time for conversations with you. I have toyed with the idea of setting aside a time each day for a collective IM/v2v conversation on my previous day’s (or days’) blog posts, that would be ‘recorded’ and appended to the blog post.

  11. Kevin Carson says:

    I guess I’m a Luddite, but the idea of IM horrifies me for the same reason cell phones horrify me.I like having a land line with answering machine attached, so I can deal with people when it’s convenient for me, and never have to answer the phone without knowing who it is. And when I’m walking around away from home, I can actually carry on a coherent thought process without constantly being interrupted by something like Harrison Bergeron’s “handicap.”Likewise, with email, I can respond when it’s convenient for me, instead of constantly being interrupted and having to deal with people in real-time when I’m trying to concentrate on something.I guess IM and cell phones are great for extraverts, but they’re my idea of hell.

Comments are closed.