Email Limits What You Can Do

You do things with people. How you talk is what you do.

There is a theme amongst the best software thinkers I know, and it goes like this: Architecture is everything. I don’t mean how the code is structured. The architecture of how the software fits, limits, and affords the human mind.

What’s especially important is the software we use to talk to each other. The architecture of the social spaces we inhabit is increasingly digital. The networks we use to communicate afford what we communicate. People say vastly different things on 4chan than they do on Facebook. Your colleagues will say different things in Slack than they will in Email.

Mitch Kapor popularized it in the 1990's:

The structure of the network, and the way we talk to each other and communicate, determines the kinds of things we can and cannot do.
I’d like to add you to my LinkedIn Professional Network

John Lilly spoke about this at Code for America summit 2014 (at left). It’s not an accident he was talking at a civic event. It’s a good talk, and concise. It’s worth watching, and it’s one click away, right over there to the left.

Communication mediums are how we talk to each other. They influence or outright define the kinds of conversations we have.

They often dictate what we can and cannot say. You cannot talk to a pundit on CNN, you can tweet to Barack Obama (or @-mention him here).


Mediums and Politics

Remember that quote from Mitch Kapor earlier? I removed the first sentence. I’ll add it back in, and the focus will change:

Architecture is Politics. The structure of the network, and the way we talk to each other and communicate, determines the kinds of things we can and cannot do.

There are huge societal implications here.

Look at #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter. We are having a conversation in the US about police brutality and Black oppression that I’m not sure we would have without a democratizing medium. The work of advocates is important and necessary, but the conversation changed when the medium did, giving new kinds of activists a platform. These new activists are the ones you never heard from before precisely because they were marginalized.

I think we’re seeing the first generation of activists who grew up in the world of social media start to influence the conversation. I can’t wait to see what they do.

In Ferguson, CNN tried to tell a story of unruly riots and police establishing order. CNN is a broad-cast medium: the few control the story to the many. Twitter is a multi-cast medium: The many control the story to the many. It’s such a small change, but it is immense. Twitter has problems, sure, but we are lucky they understand the value of their open, multicast medium. Remember #OccupyGezi?


Ev Williams did not name Medium accidentally. Medium has minimal, beautiful UI, but loads of architecture. The interactions between us is the message.


The Medium of You and Your Work

So if communications mediums are so important, why do we just default to email all the time?

Email is a great medium. It has a few strengths, but the biggest is ubiquity. It’s common because it’s common. Email makes sense when talking with the wider world (customers, consultants, and others outside your work). But what about internally? what about with the people you work with, day-in and day-out?

It’s a damn shame if you default to email without thinking. Email might be the right answer, but if you haven’t even thought about it, how would you know? You are a professional, the default answer is not good enough.

How do you communicate who is working on what? When do they expect to finish? Who will follow up? How do you know what people are doing each day, week, or month? If you just send email for all of this, you are forcing everyone to remember all this stuff or put it in spreadsheets that get forgotten. What a waste.

What do you need from your communication?

  • Timeliness? Use realtime chat like IRC or Slack.
  • Polish? Use great in-document tools like Quip.
  • Records and Estimates? Use CRM if in sales, task-tracking like Pivotal or Trello.

The medium dictates the kinds of interactions you can and cannot have with your peers, and peer interactions increasingly define the work you can and cannot do.

From Joshua Slayton, on how AngelList did so much with so few people (link).

Google, a pretty good company, understood this enough to just build a better communications medium on their own. GMail was such an amazing step forward. You don’t want to know what email was like before, unless you enjoy scams.


So Why So Much Email?

Communication mediums devolve to the level of people with the most power, a sort of Peter Principle inversion. In other words, you have to use email because your boss uses email.

More broadly, whoever holds more power in the relationship dictates the medium. If you want to meet with your friend more than they want to meet you, you’ll pick a spot near them. If you want to talk with your boss, you’ll use whatever they do, which is probably email. It probably shouldn’t be.

Lest we dehumanize, this is probably true for your boss, too. They have to talk to customers wherever their customers are. There’s a reason successful marketing doesn’t consist of internal memos, but external mediums like email marketing, billboards, etc.

Email is the default, and that can be great. So many people can talk to each other, it’s so broad and useful. But for your day to day professional job, it’s not good enough.

If you have the power to pick your team’s medium, give it some real thought. If you have the power but don’t have the time, let your team decide, and crucially, you have to use it, too.