Email: A Love/Hate Relationship

Photo by I am I.A.M. used under Creative Commons

Photo by I am I.A.M. used under Creative Commons

We all use email, like it or not.

Even Gen Y uses email to communicate with “old people“, despite their preference for SMS, IM, and social networks. How many accounts do you have? Probably at least two, one for work communication, one for personal mail.

Boston College has recognized this trend, announcing that incoming freshmen will not receive email accounts, but rather a .edu address that can be forwarded to an existing inbox.

A common enhancement request for Connect and Mix to add subscriptions by email, which has led me to start thinking about ways we can integrate with email, a la TripIt and Sandy, which will unfortunately be shuttering its service next week.

Incidentally, an Open Source project has started to recreate Sandy, if you’re interested in helping or providing requirements.

Anyway, email provides an established and easy way to communicate, but it has its problems. For example, it’s not very good at threaded discussions among several parties. To work around this limitation, people generally reply to all, causing frequent (and ironic) backlash from mailing list members who don’t want to be spammed.

Most people complain that they have too much email, leading to declarations of email bankruptcy and the like. So, I’m always a bit surprised when people volunteer for more email, e.g. from Connect. I suppose it’s a natural desire to use a single interface for information, rather than logging in to the network to check on updates.

I wonder why RSS hasn’t been more successful conquering this problem. Everyone uses email, and everyone uses a browser. So, if you want to consolidate into a single place, why not use RSS instead of increasing the clutter in your inbox?

I guess RSS suffers from an image problem, i.e. most people have no idea what it is or why they should use it. The inclusion of feed readers into email clients goes a long way toward helping, but again, most people blank out when you mention RSS.

Anyway, back to email. A few weeks ago, one of the mailing lists I belong to served up an interesting case study  about email. The list is for Mac users, and someone sent a question asking for feedback about buying a Macbook vs. a Macbook Pro.

The question generated at least 30 replies over the course of a week or so, and not a single unsubscribe me tirade. Sure, it’s an opt-in list, but this tells me two things. One, people don’t mind interesting email, where interesting is highly subjective, and two, it underscored how email fails at a threaded discussion.

Problem 1, the person asking the question had a bunch of useful information, scattered over many emails. Problem 2, people giving advice didn’t have easy access to what was already said, which caused duplication. Problem 3, if anyone ever has that question again, there’s no good way to search the list’s history, which leads to reiteration, annoyance and tirades.

What’s the solution? Forums and blogs do a much better job of this, which is why Connect and other social networks follow the object+comments model. A group on Connect would meet the requirements of this type of mailing list much more completely, but as I mentioned before, people crave email interaction with Connect.

Again, I’m not sure why, but I’m trying to think of ways to accommodate this. Beyond stuff like, subscribing to activity, providing a create idea/question template that can be parsed or creating comments by replying to the mail we generate when you get comments, what other cool interactions (like TripIt and Sandy) could we do?

Maybe one missing thing here is desire. Why did a simple question about Macbook vs. Macbook Pro generate so much interest, even though people complain about too much email?

Apple is interesting. No doubt about it. The “Have an iPhone?” group on Connect has 600 members and is the largest group. The mailing lists for iPhone users and Mac users get heavy traffic. The posts I do here about the iPhone generate a lot of traffic.

So, if your users don’t want to be bothered to go to your web app to check on content, I guess you have to make it easier for them to interact, e.g. by using email interaction.

A bit meandering, but the question is this: what are the best ways to integrate with email, striking a balance between desirable functionality and annoyance?

Sound off in the comments.




  1. I think there might be a hang up in the world about replacement. It seems as though when some cool new thing comes out it must replace something else, even if that something else is slightly different and has some possibly unique applications. I wonder though, if instead of replacing the last cool thing, each new and easier thing can make the older thing a bit more valuable(?). For instance, microblogging has not replaced blogging, but it can and does enhance the value of blogging (by teasing, driving traffic, etc.).

    Check out how Ana Marie Cox rates the dollar value of certain communication channels…. Bizarre, but pretty interesting that she actually did raise money this way. Then check out her addendum that places a value on social networking….

  2. Yeah, good point about replacement. Seems that early adopters are too quick to pronounce X as a replacement for Y, while longtime users of Y want X built into/integrated with Y.

    All the while, making it tough to remember what X and Y are really good at doing.

    My point about RSS speaks to this. Why do people want email to do things they could do with RSS? This just creates more email. Sandy and TripIt are examples of how web apps leverage what email is good at, i.e. sending and receiving unique data.

  3. How many accounts? Well, I have one with several aliases that goes back continuously to 1992. I have half-a-dozen on my home ISP. I have work accounts. I have a couple of domains – how many is that? I have several on the big ISP's, generally in order to use some product. I have several on websites/bbs's. I have many that I have forgotten about. Sometimes I remember about them, and am amazed they are still there. I use one that went away years ago to post on usenet, extremely efficient spam filter.

    And people wonder why I don't jump on the cooltool of the day. Other people wonder why I read the newspaper on the train. UI BANDWIDTH!

    If I take the time to send email to someone, I'm offended if they declare email bankruptcy. But then again, I'm not afraid to offend people who send me crap.

  4. You sound like my buddy from college who only uses Emacs to read his mail, refusing to use any web mail or rich email client. It is fast and lightweight, but we don't all have the ability to do that.

    When I was first here, 96-99, we could access mail from a terminal. I think they shut that off, although I've not tried recently, i.e. since 2001.

    Nevertheless, I am a fan of rich and good UI, damn the bandwidth and the newspaper 🙂

  5. When people ask for email subscription, they are not asking for more emails they are asking for consolidated communication.

    Imagine a world where a company communicates / collaborates primarily through social communities where a user can “watch” groups and receive an email notification once a day of updates. They can then choose to read and reply accordingly.

    There is a statistic which a colleague of mine told me (so i reserve the right to be wrong), on average for every email you send out you receive 7 replies in relation to that subject.

    We are at a key transition period in our communication. Generation Y are brought up on not using email but instead using social networking, micro-blogging etc… to communicate and collaborate whilst the old generation (Generation X) are using the more traditional means. Finding the balance / cross-over is difficult and email subscription is a small step (I hear this many times from Executive Mgmt teams) whereas RSS maybe a step to far for Generation X.

    Change Management is always difficult….;-)

  6. I get why people *say* they want email subscriptions, and I happen to think they are mildly useful. Rich and I have been chatting about how to integrate more email and IM interactions into Connect. Why? Because it's obvious that RSS doesn't fit the bill.

    At the end of the day, it comes down to interest. If the content isn't interesting, people file the email mentally as spam. If it is interesting, you get 35 emails about how to decide between Macbooks.

    This also speaks to why 2.0 will fail in lots of enterprises. Because change management is hard, you can't count on the adoption that's required to see benefit, i.e. network effects. It's not for everyone, knowing which makes me wonder how much development I should spend on drawing traffic vs. making it totally awesome for the diehard users.

  7. Personally – I would like you to make it totally awesome and leave the “drawing of traffic” to people like me and the dedicated Web 2.0 Champions – it's what we are paid to do 😉

    Saw you have been doing some social networking stuff on mobile devices – looking good…

  8. We're still planning on email subscriptions, unless Marketing builds it for Mix first, in which case, we'll just uptake it.

    You're referring to the iPhone optimized version of Connect People Search I assume. I haven't got much response to that, which surprises me. Rich will probably tinker more with iPhone stuff when we get a standard way to deploy apps within the firewall.

  9. I don't think I've ever heard of Emacs called “fast” or “lightweight”–this is a first. I'd much prefer to use elm to read my mail if I could (assuming it still exists). elm + vi was wicked fast for me–guess it's all what you get used to. These days, the browser widgets installed/used by some webmail providers make keyboard shortcuts almost as fast as the good ol' green screen clients.

  10. Compared to email clients like TBird or (gasp) Outlook, CLI clients like elm (based on Emacs right?) and vi are way faster.

  11. No to derail this, but elm was a separate, standalone program that could use emacs or vi (or pico or joe or whatever) as an editor. It wasn't tied to emacs in any way.

  12. You're right of course. It's been a while since I used any of them. I should have said elm instead of emacs in my original reply. We used to use elm and pico with an emacs editor. I don't recall it being slow.

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