The Opponents of Email Have Destroyed It

Email is dead. Long live Email.

Have you tried discussing something with friends on email lately? Often it’s worse than not even trying. Many people will never reply to any emails at all. Some will reply to the first email in a discussion thread after there have been eight emails and the consensus on some point has moved on. Someone else will then reply to a combination of what the person who is a week behind the times said plus what someone else just said who’s up to speed, but also to what a third person has been saying all this time — unbeknownst to many of the participants, and following a completely different line of thought — on WhatsApp or Signal, or was it Telegram? No wait, it was on Slack, which two of the participants began using to make everything more “convenient” and to show kindness to others since everyone hates email. Some people will eventually read an email if you phone them and ask them to. But they’ll phone you back again to tell you that they’ve read the email and to ask if you can’t (for godsake) let the rest of the gang know about it through Facebook instead of, you know, keeping it secret. There’s someone else, meanwhile, whom you’d like to add to the email thread if it could be said to exist, because you’ve just discovered that they’ve been sending you lots of brilliant contributions through Twitter. But when you message them back through Twitter — I mean X — asking if they can please email you, their reply makes clear that they believe you’ve made a funny joke. Perhaps funnier, though, is the routine conundrum you soon find yourself in of having some people in your group asking you to please re-send each email repeatedly and to please give them 24-hour, 2-hour, and 1-hour reminder emails prior to any event, while of course other people are complaining that there are too many !%%#$?$ emails or, more often, not complaining — just vanishing. Not vanishing on purpose, of course, as it will turn out later that they’ve wanted to be emailed at three different email addresses, but not the fourth one which you were using — that one has been abandoned since — oh god, I don’t know — last Tuesday.

Back in January, I wrote In Praise of Email. I didn’t hold out much hope and now I’ve lost what I had. Email is probably dead. Email was the single most powerful organizing tool that movements without wealthy backing had. It still sits there of course, pretending to still exist, mocking us with its enormous potential. Eventually, it will likely lose that gleam and — as with television — become a medium we no longer even recognize potential in, not because of something inherent in the technology, but because of what people have done to it. Unless we reshape email into a different sort of tool. It has, of course, many replacements, but none of them seems to have replaced what email could do.

By “people” I mean individuals, but I also mean corporations and governments. We’ve focused our concerns about net neutrality on websites, while email has been destroyed and a social-media oligarchy has claimed ownership of a big chunk of communications. Somehow we forgot that nobody every much looked at any non-corporate websites except when an email had just told them to do so, or some creative and fortuitous event had caused corporate communications systems to redirect eyeballs outside of the matrix — something they have learned to avoid. Now, with emails no longer as capable of directing mass interest toward websites, access to those websites can be as neutral as it pleases without disturbing a single inflictor of misery on the world.

Websites are themselves becoming more difficult to create and maintain, of course. Either they must be fully created through some corporate platform that owns and controls them and determines how they are promoted or hidden — all done without any need to control individuals’ access to the internet itself, or their creators must invest ever-increasing amounts of time or money to protect websites from the twin assaults of outside hacking and inside “updates” and “improvements” constantly inflicted on every tool with which one can build a website.

But email was much more than a means of directing people to websites. In fact, email can still direct people to websites. That part of email is not all-the-way dead, merely terminally ill. Email was also a means of communicating among individuals and small groups. It was super-convenient, in that you could send when you wanted and receive when/if you wanted and reply when/if you wanted. You could reply or reply-all or forward, add recipients or remove recipients or blind-copy recipients. It had potential for rudeness and misunderstanding, but we were learning to avoid those problems. It also had potential for clarity and diplomacy. It could be as short or long as needed. It could be calmly composed after 10 minutes of private cursing. Email was a fully-developed technology. You could schedule an email for next week, or schedule it by time zones. An autoresponder could tell people you were out. You could read a group discussion now or later, or read only the parts from certain people. There were no more obvious improvements that hadn’t been made.

I think the best counter-argument I’ve heard to my tendency toward nostalgia for email is, in its entirety: “Shut up, Boomer.” I take such a lengthy exposition from young people very seriously, considering how much time must have gone into drafting and revising it. Maybe I’m just an introvert, a writer, and an old relic. Maybe.

There were always people who wouldn’t write and would only talk — once on phones and now on Zoom. They were always right that talking is nicer in many ways. It was always more enjoyable to talk with them. But they were always wrong to imagine that I could get even 1% of the usual amount done if I had to listen to everyone chat about everything. They’ve won. But movement organizing has lost. Nothing can happen anymore without zoom calls. Too bad for introverts. But also too bad for setting up multiple events and petitions and mass-email campaigns and websites in a matter of minutes by multitasking. Forget it. Zoom owns you. The global webinar is an absolutely wonderful thing, but it could have been created without destroying email. And it isn’t the non-writing extroverts who are killing email.

Well, non-writing has something to do with it. Film has replaced books, though there is still a niche for books. Transcribed and misspelled spoken messages, graphics, videos so short that you could remove the good parts and have negative time, and zoom call after zoom call after ever-loving zoom call have replaced email. There may still be a niche for email if we can find it. But “writer,” like “book reader,” is not a neutral characteristic. Books are better than films in many ways. That more people have watched Oppenheimer than read the book, though each has its own major pros and cons, is an indication that the world is a vastly stupider place than it needs to be. We should be educating readers and writers. Being able to communicate in writing is not like being able to read a non-digital clock or cursive. It’s part of being an informed and intelligent participant in culture. I’m not saying that everyone should be able to write a novel, though I see nothing wrong with that. I’m saying that everyone should be able to write an email. There were always some topics better discussed in-person/by phone/by video. But there were and are many better discussed by email.

Yes, I’m old. Yes, I’ve never had any idea how people do things on their phones, not when I could read teeny tiny print in the dark and not when I cannot read it. But young people have not all moved to texting. They’ve all moved to a dozen or two different media, so that there’s no one way to include everyone. Non-plutocratic activist campaigns cannot financially afford to do texting as they’ve done email. Not that texting could do what has been done with email even if it were free.

So, what do I propose?

I think a variety of approaches may be needed. Some may succeed or partly succeed and others fail. We need to continue pushing for net neutrality and expanding what we mean by that.

We need to work for the break up and/or public takeover of massive monopolistic social media platforms, in order to replace not just oligarchy and not just privacy-invading profiteers but principally in order to abolish secret backstage manipulation of content that prioritizes some, buries some, and completely censors some for no good reason.

We need to abolish spam, through public, non-corporate identification of and blocking of actual spam. The problem here is almost certainly not technological. A culture that can not only spilt the atom but create a 3-hour movie about using it to kill Japanese people and not show a single Japanese person in the movie can block spam.

We need to reverse the vicious cycle of sending and re-sending emails because there are too many emails. We need to dedicate ourselves not to sending an email enough times to reach someone but to reading every email that has been sent to us a single time.

We need to develop strategies for moving people off corporate email and onto independent email providers that provide a useful and accountable and non-invasive service. If you have to write things in a calendar yourself rather than having it done by a robot that reads your email, then governments and corporations will also have to spy on you themselves with some effort, and you will be able to demand an answer as to why some email was never sent or never arrived. Replacing something like Google Groups does not require critical mass to work, like replacing Twitter does. It requires believing it is a moral duty.

We need to develop an understanding of privacy that does not prioritize staying off the email lists of activist groups but staying off social and anti-social communications platforms (and email providers) that sell every spec of data about you for profit and government favor. Nobody should be allowed to add you to any email list without your clearly expressed intention to join it. But you should express that intention more, and tolerate less having your screen filled with advertisements for something you happened to just mention aloud in your living room.

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