Andy McKay

Mar 04, 2015

In defense of email


Email has a tough time these days. It seems every week a new startup arrives trying to fix the problem. People aim for "inbox zero" with some sort of fanaticism. But here's the thing, I think email is great (most of the time).

In the last few weeks I've been asked to give feedback in spreadsheets, etherpads, Google docs, video conferencing meeting and email. Of them all, I'll vote for email and here's why:

  • email is accessible to people regardless of timezone
  • it is more friendly to people whose first language is not English (or whatever the main thread language is)
  • it allows thoughtful, measured responses
  • it allows people time to research before giving a response
  • it gives the people the ability to respond on their schedule
  • it allows people who are not extroverted to get their say in, for example: meetings are often dominated by extroverts or people to whom some level of power is vested
  • it notifies you when there is a response from someone
  • you can see the responses in context
  • email provides a recorded history of the decision
  • it scales to a large number of people
  • you don't need to be invited

That's not to say it's perfect. There are so many problems with email. Trolls, over cc'ing, the lack of visual and verbal cues, threads dissolving into chaos, rabbit holing on issues and so on. It's not a perfect tool.

But then again neither are the other tools. I would argue that in a global open project the benefits of email out weight most other tools. Here's David Humphrey on video conferencing:

I'll go further and suggest that in global, open projects, the idea that we can schedule a "call" with interested and affected parties is necessarily flawed. There is no time we can pick that has us all, in all timezones, able to participate. We shouldn't fool ourselves: such a communication paradigm is necessarily geographically rooted; it includes people here, even though it gives the impression that everyone and anyone could be here. They aren't. They can't be. The internet has already solved this problem by privileging asynchronous communication. Video is synchronous.

David Humphrey

Here's what happens if you send a message in Slack:

So there is a tool that understands the problems. Email is a good asynchronous communication mechanism. Flawed in how it's used sometimes, but a good choice for many things and one I'm trying to use more in the future.