Today Google released an update to its email client, Gmail, which is a huge deal because we all use email and more than a billion people around the world use Gmail. As Google said in its announcement of the update, "we just can't live without it."
I generally believe that, despite the inevitable bellyaching around any change in popular technology, when a giant tech corporation overhauls its core products those updates are mostly good. Everyone makes mistakes, of course, but Google has a lot of money and employs a lot of smart people and I found that the many UI tweaks it has made to Gmail since I started using it in 2005 have made it a better, more useful email client.
The good news is that the latest major update to Gmail, which started rolling out to all users today, is no different. It introduces several tweaks that make it more intuitive, secure, and efficient considering how I use email in 2018, which is different than how I used it in 2005. The bad news is that while the update is admirably trying to address a problem, the problem it's trying to address is that my relationship with email has become so fraught over the years that I now literally have nightmares about my inbox and at times considered taking survivalist courses so I could one day live a life without email.
Let's look at two features that are part of this new update that both address real issues with the way I use email, and explain why sometimes thinking about email makes me want to become an off-the-grid subsistence farmer.
The first is "nudging." If you're anything like me, you often use your email as a kind of to-do list. Someone sends you an email asking for something, and you'll use that email as a reminder, maybe even marking it as unread, that you have to do that thing. If you're anything like me, you probably also take on or are assigned so many to-dos in the form of emails, you can't always reply to them in a timely manner. The new "nudge" feature will recognize such emails you've neglected, and nudge you to reply to them by highlighting in orange how long its been since you've received or sent that email, and prompting you to "reply," or "follow up."
This is really useful because as the list of undone to-do emails in my inbox pile up, it's sometimes easy to lose track of emails I am exceptionally late to. An orange text reminder with an exact count of days showing me how I fucked up might get me to reply more quickly.
"We don’t nudge very often,” Jacob Bank, lead product manager for Gmail, told The Verge, “but when we do, it can save people from making a high-cost mistake.”
If I currently owe you an email like this, I'm sorry, but also let's get real: We are all late to reply to emails all the time because we all get too many emails. The solution Google offers here is not "how do we reduce the soul-crushing number of emails our billion user get every day?" But rather, "how do we shame them and nudge them to reply to those emails more quickly so we can get back to writing and reading more emails?"
The other new Gmail feature I'd like to complain about now, "snooze," addresses the same problem in the opposite manner. Instead of being nudged to reply, Gmail users can now press the snooze button on certain emails, which makes the email go away but come back later that day, tomorrow, next week, or a time and date of your choosing.
Much like its origins on the alarm clock, the Gmail snooze button is just a button that allows you to actively confirm to yourself that you are a loser. My alarm went off at 5AM today because my back hurts like hell and if I woke up early and did some yoga before work that would help. But I didn't. I kept pressing the snooze button until it was too late and now I'm here blogging and my back still hurts.
So that, but email. Rather than nudging you to reply to emails and stay on top of your shit, it just allows you keep putting these things off until they finally catch up with and finally kill you.
I am sure that I will use both of these features and other new ones, and that they will help me reply to more emails more quickly, or that they will help me stay at inbox zero, even if it's with a looming debt of snoozed emails.
But it's not going to make email or my job in general "better." The only way email will get better is if there's less of it, and at the moment I don't see a realistic way of using less email. As Google said, "we just can't live without it."