Email is Still Broken, but at Least People are Talking

Email is broken. I don't think the assertion really even requires an example for everyone to concur. Spam, ongoing wars over decades old standards and protocols, bacon (automatically generated email that you want), listservs, poorly written clients, and mixed expectations regarding replays, make email frustrating to deal with under the best of situations.

Email is also inescapable. There's no other technology around at the moment which pushes messages out to users as effectively (every other thing is pull), provides administrators with as many tools and options, or has such ubiquitous adoption rates. I'd love to be able to say "don't send me emails, I won't get it," but the truth is that I get and send a bunch of email, and every other option for "next wave" digital communication fails to impress.

Including Google Wave.

Don't get me wrong, Wave is nifty. Hampered mostly by an interface which is foolish and gimmicky, I think Wave provides capabilities that we need on the Internet. Wave makes multi-user chat useful for people who have trouble wrapping their brain around IRC. Wave strikes the right balance between "real-time" and persistence (which is mighty difficult), and most importantly...

Wave gets people thinking about email, and what the ideal replacement might look like. And that's a good thing indeed.

Maybe, more importantly, Wave moves many of the trivial uses of email, into a more suitable format (XMPP) so that email, or whatever replaces it, has a more easily defined task. Maybe there are a couple of XMPP applications: Jabber, Wave, and (----) [1] that work in concert to alleviate the pressure on email and make it much more clear what "the email killer" will look like.

To my mind, one of the biggest problems with email is that we use it for too much, including a number of things that it's not ideally suited for. Perhaps the way to fix email is to fix all of these other communication problem, and see what's left.

Here's a list of the things what I think we use email for today, to which it is unsuited, followed by a couple of examples?

  • Notifications. There's been a reply to a comment on your blog, someone has commented on your face-book status update, it's time to renew your domain name, your payment has been processed. Etc.
  • File Transfer. Look at my resume. Here's the paper I owe you. I was looking for your article and wondered if you might have a copy you could share? Here's this funny picture my uncle sent me. Etc.
  • Content Review. Could you take a look at this essay or bug report? I mentioned this in an IM but didn't want to send it in that format.

This leaves us with a relatively short list of things: genuine letters (i.e. first class mail; generally "asynchronous personal communication") and listservs (which like Usenet are probably the best way to have async-group communication online from the users perspective). And spam, but we don't care about that.

So what's the best way to handle what's left? Hell, what's the best way to handle the rest of it?

I don't think there are good answers yet, at all, and I look forward to continuing to thing about these issues in a big way.

[1]I think this might tie back to my posts on notification systems, but more along the lines of what we currently use SMS for (say,) but I'm not sure what this looks like in a personal (much less interpersonal) method. Lots and lots of whitelisting, that's for sure.
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