Micah Redding — humanity, technology & the future

Email is universal

Lately, there has been a flurry of discussion about email, from the "email is broken" thread to the "we're solving the wrong problem" theme. Some people want to upgrade email clients to handle email as a task-list, or make it more like letter-writing, or add some nifty new tricks. Others insist that better email clients are not the solution - that we need to stop using email as a catch-all reference list and task tool, and start using tools fit for the jobs we are trying to do.

I think that's wrong.

What's being suggested is that we stop living our lives in email, and start storing our to-do lists, our project management, and our relationships elsewhere. But that is a bad idea.

Almost everyone on the internet has an email account. Almost all of those email accounts are full of rich information about personal relationships, day-to-day habits, purchases, obligations, decisions, and liabilities. If someone has a long digital history, it's almost certainly in email. If someone received a touching thank-you note, it was probably through email.

If someone wanted to backup their messages, they could probably figure out how to do that with email. If they wanted to access their information on a new device, they could figure out how to do that with email.

Email is universally supported. Email is uniquely persistent. Email works with everything. Email keeps your history.

Email is everywhere.

If you succeed in getting users to move information out of their email accounts, you're probably succeeding in getting them to lose that data in a few years. Nobody can keep up with all the social networks, to-do apps, and document formats that come and go. Everybody can at least comprehend email.

Somewhere deep, users know this. This is why, despite the explosion in apps and websites offering to hold onto that precious information for you, users have clung to their inboxes, persistently stuffing their information into the one repository they really understand.

Please don't persuade them to do otherwise. Just because something is new and shiny, doesn't mean it's safe or respectful. Email will still be around in 20 years. What about your new app?

If you want a better to-do list, or project management tool, or CRM, you need to build that on top of email. Help people use their email accounts better. Help people make better sense of their contacts. Help people view the files they've shared, and the photos they've swapped.

Don't limit yourself, of course. Build all kinds of great things. But instead of trying to pry people away from what they know is a long-term safe bet, allow them to keep their information where they can control it.

Work with the grain of the internet, rather than against it.