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Email

For me, instant messaging is overwhelming. Keeping up with Slack or Discord messages often feels like drinking from a fire hose of information. And some features of these apps bring out the worst in people. I wish these apps were more like email, because email got a lot of things right.

My biggest complaint with instant messaging is how distracting it is. Notifications pop up to grab your attention for every message, most of which aren’t intended for me.

This is a necessary byproduct of organizing communication into channels. On the surface this is a great idea to focus the discussion on a topic, but in practice it heavily hinges on the netiquette of the participants.

Like every group chat ever, a channel will spawn off-topic conversations that will ping everyone in the channel.

Eventually, somebody will start discussing sandwiches in a channel for handling outages. Or someone will start discussing a baseball game in the general channel. Both of these are real examples.

I feel like the only real option in such cases is to mute or leave the channel, but that’s not always an option. I can’t leave the outage channel, and I can’t mute it. So what now?

Topics (or sub-chats) are a great way to combat this. But again, they hinge on the netiquette of the participants. If nobody uses threads they are useless. If too many are created, they become hard to follow.

Then there is the instant part of instant messaging that entices some people to write down their stream of consciousness for others to interpret, instead of taking the time to organize their thoughts into a sentence.

You

Know

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Type

Of

People

Who

Send

Messages

Like

This

Just

So

They

Can

Write

Something

Instantly

Then there is the other kind of instant in instant messaging - the instant response - to which some people feel entitlement.

I’ve had people ping me with “I saw you replied in the channel 15 min ago, but not to me”. Or people ping me with a question and 3 min later sending another one saying that my lack of response will be considered a no. And I had people ping me with “Are you there?” every 5 min.

I don’t know why instant messaging brings out the worst in people. But I know that a lot of people choose to always appear offline to avoid these problems.

Which brings me to email. It never had an online status to begin with, every conversation is a thread, there is no expectation of an instant response, and people usually write full sentence responses.

Some of these “features” were technological or practical limitations of the time, and some evolved out of the way people used email.

But email evolved into a great, distraction free, way to communicate by using these friction points to its advantage.

It has its problems, like not having a mechanism to leave a thread, or having some way to track branching threads. But apps like Hey have shown that it’s possible to resolve these problems. And showed that the federated design of email allows anyone to innovate and improve this 50-year-old protocol.

There are so many wonderful solutions on top of email out there. Apps like Mailbrew - which combines RSS, Reddit, Twitter even weather forecasts into a single daily email.

Anyone can send you an email. Which is a blessing and a curse thanks to spammers. But I’ve had wonderful conversations over the years that have cold-mailed me after stumbling upon one of my projects or articles. And, again, apps like Hey add ways to screen incoming emails before they end up in your inbox.

I recently tried Twist and found that by mimicking email it became a better instant messenger - if you can call it that. It only shows that there is still a lot of room left to improve instant messengers. At least the work-focused ones like Slack.

Email is still the best communication method for me.


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