Mediums Matter

(or why email just won’t die)

When we started Emmerge, we had a vision of unifying email and chat into a single inbox, combining the convenience and fluidity of messaging with the openness and universality of email.

It didn’t work.

But it wasn’t for technical reasons. We solved those. We figured out how to deliver messages instantly for users, to route content appropriately, to strip out all of the extraneous email cruft to ensure a clean interface for all, and even how to maintain history and chat-room-like knowledge sharing across mediums. Then we tried it, and it didn’t work. Technically, it functioned well, but it never felt right. We tried to replace Slack for a week, and the whole team disliked it. Notifications pinged people constantly. Inboxes became overloaded with one-sentence messages and threads fragmented as participants and subjects changed. Those horrible HTML daily digest emails were actually wanted by some people; they liked conversational formats, but not when it meant they had to read the plain-text version of the New York Times. Put another way, the core issue wasn’t technical, but behavioral. The way people use IM didn’t conform, and wouldn’t conform, to the way they used email.

The Pursuit of Ambient Knowledge

We weren’t alone in this endeavor. Mailtime had a similar approach, as did Microsoft’s Send, Fleep, and Mainframe among others. And they’re all pushing in the same direction because it’s and idea that seems right. Email is old. Email is about to die. Email is still about to die. Email is still about to die. Slack is taking over the business world, and other messaging programs will dominate the consumer market. And there’s some degree of truth to that; for internal communication, collaboration platforms and messaging programs are great. But they don’t really solve the core problems of collaboration and overload for people who are externally focused, and more saliently, no matter how good the tool, messaging programs are still messaging programs

What people really want when they say someone should “fix” email/messaging/collaboration, is ambient knowledge. They want information about what’s happening around them placed in their brain, without all the incessant interruptions and FYIs that keep one from focusing and doing real work. But communications systems alone can’t really fix this problem. Even systems like Slack and Skype have fundamental weaknesses that stem from their strengths. You feel less encumbered by formality, and real-time conversations engage you to reply rapidly. Except that freedom to just type? That ripping away of your internal editor? All your coworkers feel the same way. And instead of getting one message that was edited and structured for digestion, you get a stream of ever-running conversation vying for your attention and even more pressure to keep up lest you miss something important.

Editing. A Gift To Your Co-Workers

None of the above is intended to minimize the value of messaging platforms. They are incredibly useful, and I’ve both used and benefited from some version of group chat at work for most of my professional life. But there’s also a benefit to communication that’s edited and long-form; where a person, attempting to be considerate of others, thought about who should get a message and what it should say before they sent it. And the form they send it in matters too. There are no less than 10 different channels I could use to talk to many of my co-workers at any time. But each also sends a signal. It’s on Facebook because it’s personal, it’s a text message because it’s urgent, it’s a phone call because we have a lot to nail down, and it’s an email because there’s an agenda or something that’s deeper than “can we push to production?” The medium sends a message, and because of that, mediums are much more difficult to disrupt than people tend to assume. Yes, parts of email will disappear, and good riddance; it’s not a good notification mechanism, nor a good chat client. But it does have clear benefits, and in our failure to recognize the value of email as a medium we discovered what it would take to make that medium better, and have spent the last year doing so.

Email is dead. Long live email.