Is Email Dying?

By
Photo: Shutterstock

Like so many other office workers, I employ a detailed email-management protocol. I am a strict adherent to the inbox-zero strategy. Most of my email gets filtered before it even reaches my inbox, and what ends up there gets dealt with and archived as quickly as possible. I try to check my email periodically to minimize distraction. And I get my most important writing done very early in the morning, before I have even looked at it.

It works for me, even if it says something horrifying about the state of modern life: My most important communication and reporting tool is also a distraction and an annoyance. But there is good news for the many of us with a love-hate relationship with our inboxes. We are finally getting the technologies to put it in its place, making it a tool to check in with rather than a swamp to crawl out of.

Silicon Valley types have long considered email a technology ripe for disruption. It has its upsides, to be sure: It is intuitive, ubiquitous, convenient, and free. But it is also time-consuming, given that many people wade through inboxes that fill up with hundreds or thousands of undifferentiated messages a day. And it is distracting — in some cases reducing productivity rather than enhancing it. (There’s even evidence, if hugely overblown by the media, that checking your email temporarily depresses your IQ.)

As such, workers have developed coping mechanisms, and companies have fretted and sought ways to minimize the downsides:

“It is an epidemic," says Lacy Roberson, a director of learning and organizational development at eBay Inc. At most companies, it's a struggle "to get work done on a daily basis, with all these things coming at you," she says.

Office workers are interrupted -- or self-interrupt -- roughly every three minutes, academic studies have found, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task, says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction.

Enter Slack, an amped-up version of Gchat, the subject of a great story (with a terrible headline) in Wired, and an email-murdering beast. The technology is easy to understand though hard to explain, but here’s a go at it from the Wired piece.

To get you in the door, it has a supercharged group chat function, a modern take on the AOL rooms of yore. It runs on your desktop, the web, your phone, and stays in sync as you switch from one to the other. Instead of one big room, it lets you set up channels for various groups and teams, or even for specific functions (like, say, monitoring the @ replies to your company’s Twitter feed). And naturally, there’s private one-to-one messaging as well.

Yet Slack’s well-designed chat function is a trojan horse for bigger ideas. Its ambition is to become the hub at the center of all your other business software. It ties in to many of the applications you use at work: Dropbox, Google Apps, GitHub, Heroku, and Zendesk to name a few. Once they’re all connected, it can keep track of most everything you do with them. Most importantly, it’s got killer search built right in. “Right now, your data ends up a little bit in Twitter, a little bit in Zendesk, a little bit in GitHub,” [Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s boss] says. “Slack is the one mutual platform where all those things come together. That’s the longer-term thinking.”

Slack makes it easier to collaborate, to talk in real time, and to differentiate between important and unimportant conversations. And it is just one of many companies or platforms that promise to supplant inter-office email, like Jive and Huddle and Chatter and Yammer and Convo.

At the same time, a huge wave of technologies has come along to give you new, better ways to connect with family and friends – thus reducing social interactions in your inbox. Facebook is the obvious juggernaut. But I communicate with my far-flung friends primarily through texting, Gchat, and WhatsApp. Texting is an easier way to arrange meet-ups on the go, and a faster way for friends to get my attention if they really need me. Gchat and WhatsApp are better than email for, well, chattering, gif-sharing, and the like.

Many email clients have also added features like archiving, filtering, and priority inboxes to make managing incoming mail easier and faster. (There are also products like Mailstrom and Taper and Handle.) For me, that means that public-relations emails from private firms and government offices get automatically hidden from my view, but are there for me to look at if I want or need to.

As a result — and with my apologies to Eliot — email is going out with a whimper, not a bang. At least for me, it remains a primary platform for what the nerds call "asynchronous virtual communication." But unlike just a few years ago, it no longer feels like the only one. And now, I only have Twitter, Facebook, GroupMe, Instagram, Snapchat, and that Kardashian game distracting me in the office.