Why we can’t quit email, even though we hate it

9th November, 2023

It’s the sheer variety of emails that bewilders. A forwarded review of a fried-chicken shop, suggesting it as a venue for a date. A heartfelt break-up letter, one that could have been written on paper in the 1960s. A note from Joe to his friend Brian suggesting a way to make a bit of cash, which turned out to be the founding document of Airbnb.

Printed large and displayed on the wall of the Design Museum in London, each of these emails is part of a temporary exhibition, “Email is dead”. The show was created in partnership with, and funded by, an email marketing company, so it is no place to come for a dispassionate evaluation of the medium’s strengths and weaknesses.

Still, those emails linger in the mind.

There’s an exchange between a young man announcing the relaunch of his business and his proud parents telling him how much they love and respect him. This frozen conversation would always have been meaningful, but its significance changed when he died the next day of a sudden heart attack.

Or the “Replyallpocalypse” at NYU, when student Max Wiseltier’s reply to a mail-out from university administration inadvertently went to 40,000 other students. That wasn’t the problem, nor was his second email, apologising 40,000 times. It was 40,000 students impishly realising that each of them had the power to reach their entire cohort with any nonsense they cared to dream up.

(I sympathise with Wiseltier, who became known as the Reply All Kid. I did much the same in one of my first jobs and firmly believe that the problem lies with the email system that allowed the booby-trapped email to be sent, not the hapless replier. The story has a happy ending, however. The Reply All Kid’s notoriety led him to meet the woman who is shortly to become Mrs Reply All.)

Then there’s the email Dan Angus received after appearing as an expert TV pundit on the national evening news in Australia. It was from a skin cancer specialist warning him that he appeared to have a dangerous melanoma: “I couldn’t help but notice the obvious irregularly pigmented lesion on your R. cheek . . . Upon searching images of you on Google I see that this lesion is new and/or growing in size.” Creepy, for sure. But Angus had already been fobbed off by his doctor, and that email from a complete stranger prompted him to insist on the second opinion that saved his life.

Email is, and I hardly need to tell you this, a special kind of torture. Most office workers are utterly dependent on it. We also hate it. And we also find it enormously useful. Not sort-of handy-in-a-certain-light like Instagram or X, but essential, like a search engine or your computer mouse.

Email is the cockroach of computing. BlackBerry instant messenger and Friends Reunited may come and go, but email cannot be killed. The variety of emails displayed on the wall of the exhibition make it clear why. Any new ping in your inbox could be your lover dumping you, a friend proposing an idea that will make you both rich or a stranger with a piece of information that could save your life. Even the everyday traffic will contain both time-wasting spam and a message from a senior colleague that you ignore at your peril. There may be semi-useful administrative information (don’t Reply All), sweet nothings from a spouse, disposable quips from friends, politely phrased requests from complete strangers, interesting newsletters and much more.

It’s all in there. No wonder we feel overwhelmed. No wonder we can’t do without it.

It is that vast range of importance in the emails pouring into our inboxes every day, from the trivial to the life-changing, that explains why the inbox can be so addictive. The psychologist BF Skinner once serendipitously discovered while running low on supplies of rat food that the rats in his laboratory were more motivated by unpredictable food rewards than by predictable ones: the uncertainty grabbed their attention in a way that a steady pay-off never could. Whenever we check our inboxes, we’re like Skinner’s rats. It has been at least 90 seconds since we last checked, after all. Will the email slot-machine offer us a jackpot or a disaster? Or just a chance to hit “refresh” and have another spin?

Despite every effort, I still check my own email too often, but even for those with better habits than I, that range of possibility poses a challenge. I have argued before that one of the underrated habits of any productive person is to clarify what needs to be done — if anything — with each new incoming thing. It rarely takes long to decide with a single email but, given that the scope of possible responses could be anything from “delete” to “find a good lawyer”, it is not surprising that we get bogged down and let the undecided emails accumulate.

So what to do? Some people long ago gave up hope, ignoring their emails and switching to something like the instant messaging service WhatsApp to do the same job. Since WhatsApp has most of the downsides of email and many additional annoyances, that solves little. Others, such as Cal Newport, author of A World Without Email, maintain multiple email addresses with multiple inboxes, designed to constrain that wild variety. Newport aims to partition his emails regarding his university position away from his personal email, emails from fans of his books and emails from his editors.

Apparently that works for him, but I have always baulked at the prospect of setting up another productivity system. I have long favoured the simplicity of a single inbox, for all its travails. One place to check, one place to clarify and decide, one place to clean out and leave empty. And one more spin as I wait for the jackpot.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 13 October 2023.

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