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Email Is Awful, so Let's Stop Sending It

In the span of a couple decades, email has gone from being a novelty to an innovation to a convenience to a necessity to a nuisance. Let's just get rid of it.

Fuck this. Photo via Flickr user Ian Lamont

The revelation that Hillary Clinton used a personal email address instead of a .gov one while serving as Secretary of State has raised all sorts of questions. Did keeping her correspondence private violate State Department rules about preserving emails? Did she break any laws? Did she put herself at risk of a security breach that could have had massive consequences for the country? Did her aides redact certain information when they recently sent 55,000 pages of her emails to the State Department?


Those are important issues, and I'm sure we'll all hear more about them than we can stand in the days to come. But let's not lose sight of the real issue here: Hillary Clinton should not have been sending emails on any account, ever. No one should be sending emails, because emails are awful and everyone hates them.

Emailing came into existence in 1971, when a programmer named Ray Tomlinson invented a way for people on different computers to send messages to one another. "At the time there was no really good way to leave messages for people. The telephone worked up to a point, but someone had to be there to receive the call. And if it wasn't the person you wanted to get, it was an administrative assistant or an answering service or something of that sort," Tomlinson told the Verge in a 2012 interview.

Back then, of course, not many people had much use for email, because not many people had computers. But as desktops, laptops, phones, and tablets proliferated, email became the preferred method of communication for more and more people. All of a sudden, wonder of wonders, instead of calling your friend to describe a photo of a cat smoking a cigarette accompanied by the caption "Thank God It's Friday," you could simply shoot him an electronic version of it.

But once everyone had email everyone was more or less expected to be on it all the time, and what looked at first like an ingenious way of making communication more efficient turned into just another inbox you had to check when you got to work. In the span of a couple decades, email went from being a novelty to an innovation to a convenience to a necessity to a nuisance.


Today, unless you wield such influence that you can get away with aggressively technophobic habits (like famed nonfiction writer Gay Talese), you have to be able to send and receive email, and your job may demand that you do so at all hours of the day and night. You don't need me to describe to you how this can grind you down—the constant stream of outright spam, the inboxes that runneth over with messages from people you don't know or care about, the never-ending chains you are cc'd on unnecessarily, the office-wide emails that you can almost always ignore, the newsletters you signed up for in optimistic moments but now simply trash without reading.

In 2011, Thierry Breton, the CEO of French technology company Atos, announced that he wanted to eliminate intra-company emails entirely. He expanded on his reasons to the BBC:

I started an in-depth study with our consulting practice to see how many internal emails the 80,000 employees of Atos were receiving.

We found on average it was over 100 emails per day.

After further analysis, we realized they found 15% of the messages useful, and the rest was lost time.

But they had a fear that they would miss something.

We checked at work and at home also—and we realized they were spending 15 to 20 hours a week checking and answering internal emails.

Unsurprisingly, this move reportedly cut costs and increased earnings. How many hours have you wasted having slow, laborious email conversations that could have been wrapped up with a ten-minute instant messaging session or a five-minute phone call? How much time do you waste squinting at Gmail trying to determine which messages with the subject line "Re: Re: Fwd: Re: Question" you actually need to reply to? If something is important, you'll send someone a text, or an IM, or you'll pick up the phone, or you'll actually walk across the office and talk to someone IRL about it—and if it's not important enough for that, do you really need to send that email?


Email is a dopamine-rush-providing distraction; it is a way to keep ourselves busy pinging each other back and forth about things that need to be done instead of actually doing anything; it is a great way to circulate racist anti-Obama memes among your colleagues in the Ferguson city government. Email is bad at everything else. This is a known fact. Important people with big-time responsibilities are now actively trying to avoid email and the incriminating paper trail that can result, as this bit from a Politico story on Hillary Clinton's emails illustrates:

"My approach as chief of staff was to try to minimize [email], period, and certainly minimize email exchanges with the governor," said Ray Sullivan, who worked for former Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry. Asked whether that was out of concerns about how the emails would look to the public, he laughed and replied, "Yes. Look, when you're in the heat of decision-making, in the heat of crisis communications or natural or manmade disaster situations, it is easy to be really blunt, or use shorthand, or use language that can be misconstrued, or could offend people."

Your emails are probably not coming in the heat of any kind of crisis; no one really gives a shit about your emails. They are just the flotsam bobbing on the sea of someone else's inbox, the garbage some poor NSA intern has to sort through while he looks for subject lines about the Islamic State. At every step of the way, email is a waste of time, a chore no one likes doing but that everyone resigns themselves to. It's not much more than an annoyance, of course, but it's an annoyance that has been inflicted on everyone with a computer and a set of fingers.

It's reportedly going to take months for the State Department to go through the 55,000 pages of emails Hillary Clinton's staff has dumped on it. What will presumably happen is that some low-level drone is going to have to read all of them, then pass the pertinent documents to a slightly higher-level drone, who will read them again, and so on up the chain until everything is properly classified and organized. It's an awful job, reading thousands of emails and tossing aside the vast majority of them as worthless. Of course, it's also not too different from what a lot of us do every day.

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