Mutt Sucks Less

I use a mail client called mutt. The quality of this software may largely explain my opinion this post on the continued relevance of email

I think mutt warrants a bit of extra attention for two reasons. First, because I think there are enough people out there who don't use mutt who could and perhaps should, and I'd like to do a little encouraging; and second,like all fundamentally wonderful pieces of software, mutt can teach us something important about what makes technology great and pleasurable to use.

Working with any new kind of software is always a challenge. It is unfortunate that "features" and "functions" are the currency by which we judge software. Which is unfair to both the technology and ourselves, as the utility and quality of these features/functions depends on a number of subjective/individual factors. That said, with regards to mutt, my list is as follows:

  • Mutt is agnostic on the editor question. I suspect the fact that I could use any text editor I wanted to write email was probably my original reason for switching to mutt in the first place. It's amazing what a sane editing experience can do for the overall experience of writing emails.
  • Support for PGP/GPG encryption. Signing and encrypting emails with PGP is probably only a minor advantage, and of limited actual utility, but I think it's important and valuable to have this capability in your email client. After all, the success of PGP depends on a crowd effect: if it's easy, sign all your email and hope that others will join you. Mutt makes this easy, which is a good thing indeed.
  • Mutt operates independently of mail transmission protocols, which are universally flawed. In many ways, by not including support for mail transmission, mutt is more useful and more flexible than it would be if it was designed to handle mail transmission. Having said that, recent versions of mutt have internal support for IMAP/POP/SMUT. Not that I'd use it or recommend that you do use it and I suspect most mutt users don't either.
  • Mutt operates independently of mail storage format: you can maintain complete control over your mail data, and store email pretty much however you like. While this may be a burden to some, I'm somewhat controlling when it comes to data storage and preservation, and I think email archives are incredibly important. And I'm a weirdo about email storage.
  • Mutt's "sidebar patch" isn't even a part of the core of the software, but it's absolutely crucial to my experience of the software. Basically it gives you a heads-up-display of your mailboxes and tells you at a glance: if there are new messages and how many messages (new, flagged, read) are in an mailbox. While it eats into some screen real estate, it's generally unused screen space and it's more than worth the expenditure of pixels.
  • Mutt runs on console and can be compiled on pretty much any contemporary UNIX-like system. Chances are there are packages for most operating system. So I feel pretty confident that I'll pretty much be able to use mutt no matter what kind of system I end up using. Also console apps generally run pretty well in screen, which makes them accessible (and persistent) across the internet.

Onward and Upward!

Why Email Still Matters

There are so many sexy topics in computing and information technology these days. In light of all this potential excitement, I'm going to write about email. Which isn't sexy or exciting.

This isn't we should be clear, to say that email doesn't matter, because it seems that email still matters a great deal. Rather that email is still a relevant and useful paradigm. What's more, the email system (i.e. SMTP and associated tools) remains in many ways superior to all of the technologies and platforms that have attempted to replace email.

The Good

Email works. The servers (e.g. Postfix, Exim, Sendmai, but most Postfix) are stable, known, and very functional. While there are flaws in a lot of email clients, there are a lot of tools that exist for processing and dealing with email, and that makes it possible for everyone to interact with their email on their own terms, in a variety of contexts that make sense the them. And email is such that we can all use it and interact with each other without requiring that we all participate in some restrictive platform or interface.

In short, email is open, decentralized, standard, lightweight, push-based, and multi-modal.

Compare this to the systems that threaten to replace email: Facebook and social networking utilities, twitter, text messaging, real-time chat (i.e. IRC, IM, and Jabber). The advantages of email on these crucial, I think, dimensions are pretty clear.

The Bad

The problem, of course, with email is that it's terribly difficult to manage to keep current with one's email. Part of this problem is spam, part of the problem is "bacon," or legitimate (usu sally automated) email that doesn't require attention or is difficult to process, and it's undeniable that a big part of of it is that most end user email clients are inefficient to use. And there's the user error factor: most people aren't very good at using email effectively.

It Gets Better

No really it does. But I don't think we can wait for a new technology to swoop in and replace email. That's not going to happen. While I'm not going to write a book on the subject, I think there are some simple things that most people can do to make email better:

1. Do use search tools to make the organization of email matter less. Why file things carefully, when you can quickly search all of your email to find exactly what you need.

2. Filter your email, within an inch of it's life. Drop everything you can bare to. Put email lists into their own mail boxes. Dump "work" or "client" email into its own folders. Successful filtering means that almost nothing gets to your "inbox."

3. Use your inbox as a hotlist of things that need attention. Move email that needs responses to your inbox, and move anything that got through your filters to where it ought to be.

4. Use multiple email addresses that all redirect to a single email box. You only want to ever have to check one email system, but you probably want multiple people in multiple contexts to be able to reach you via email. This makes email filtering easier, and means that you just spend time working rather than time switching between email systems and wondering where messages are.

5. When writing emails, be brief and do your damnedest to give the people you're writing with something concrete to respond to. Emails that expect responses but are hard to respond to are among the worst there are, because you have to say something there's nothing worth saying.

6. Avoid top posting (i.e. responding to an email with the quoted material from previous exchanges below your respone.) When appropriate interleave your responses in their message to increase clarity and context without needing to be overly verbose.

7. Email isn't real time. If you need real time communication use some other medium. Don't feel like you need to respond to everything immediately. Managing expectations around email is a key to success.

That addresses most of the human problem. The technological problem will be solved by addressing spam, by building simpler tools that are easier to use effectively and support the best kind of email behaviors.

Why Email will Improve

1. Email is great in the mobile context. It's not dependent upon having a net connection which is good when you depend on wireless.

2. Email is a given. Having email is part of being a digital citizen and we mostly assume that everyone has an email. The largest burden with most new technologies is often sufficient market share to make a "critical mass" rather than some sort of threshold of innovation.

3. Email is both push-based (and delivery times are pretty fast) and asynchronous. Though this doesn't sound sexy, there aren't very many other contemporary technologies that share these properties.

Onward an Upward!