Well, I’ve currently got a bit of spare time at work so I thought I’d write up a blog post. Last week, I alluded to Facebook’s new messaging platform and how it wouldn’t lead to the death of email. The reason why it wouldn’t is because email isn’t intended to be instant communication.
Well, fast forward to today. All weekend long and especially today, I have been locked out of my email account. There’s a network wide issue at work affecting a certain group of users within a particular domain here at work; the net result is that I cannot read my email. Microsoft Outlook cannot connect to Exchange server and therefore there is no email for me.
Do I then say “Gee, it’s a good thing I have instant messenger to replace all of my email conversations!” ? No! I’m not saying that at all!
I use Instant Messaging to talk to people in real time. When someone wants to get a hold of me, or I of them, I IM them and start the conversation. It’s usually a short conversation. That’s what people did today, three of them in a span of five minutes pinged me and said “Do you know your email is not working? I tried adding you to a thread and the mail bounced.” You’ll notice none of them said “I tried adding you to an IM conversation”. I use email for multiple things and instantaneous communication is not the appropriate avenue:
- Consider what I just said. Someone tried to add me to a thread via cc. If someone does that, then I can read through the conversation history and figure out the context of the entire conversation. I get the history and background of the discussion. If someone includes me on a thread, then usually all I am given is the entire conversation from that point forward. Someone has to bring me up to speed, in real time, what we are talking about.
- Furthermore, instant messaging implies urgency. If someone interrupts me, then they expect me to reply in real time because the issue is urgent. That’s what you use it for, to talk quickly and get issues resolved quickly. If you can’t get it done quickly, you then move to the telephone because you cannot communicate everything over email or IM, you need to use the phone or talk in person when possible.
But the thing of it is that not everything is urgent. When it comes to conversation, we sort things into priority. Email is one of those tools that lets you respond to something on your own time. The fact is that as humans, we don’t think that everything is urgent. We want to sort conversations in order of priority. Heck, we even want to do tasks in order of priority, and should do them in order of priority (see Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People). Doing everything via IM is like having everyone say to you “RESPOND TO ME RIGHT NOW!” It’s one step below actually going to somebody’s office and speaking to them, you expect a response right away. Geez, the world is not going to fall apart for lack of every little item that you need to have responded (unless, of course, you had a particle accelerator that was about to create a black hole and needed to talk to the designer to avoid the world from imploding).
- That leads into my next point. As I got in this morning, I wanted to check my mail for things that were going on that may or may not be important. I have lots of alerts and offline reports that are sent to me via email but they are not necessarily important. On the other hand, there are other things that are important that require my attention but not necessarily my immediate attention. We deployed something on Friday. Did it go out? If so, I’d like to see the automated report that is generated when the software is deployed.
I use email as a bulletin board of information, sometimes like an RSS feed of important stuff at work that I need to be aware of but not necessarily having to respond to right away. Without email, I don’t have a way to track that (well, I guess there are other ways but email is way more convenient than anything else).
I liken email to having folders cross your desk with important documents inside, and instant messaging has having a secretary that buzzes you when so-and-so calls or is coming to visit. There are various advantages to both but neither are right for all situations.
- The fact is that email clients are fairly mature. I still use folders to sort all of my mail and I like it that way (I have no idea how to use the non-folder things in Gmail – the so-called “star” feature because it feels very unintuitive to me and fails my 30 second test). When I want to create complex rules to move messages around, I can do it. Facebook’s chat feature doesn’t let me organize my conversations very easily, it’s all cluttered up. My email inbox is cluttered but at least it is partially sorted.
I realize that I am but one person in a world of hundreds of millions of email and instant messaging users. You cannot use my experience alone to project it upon the rest of the population. But at the same time, I don’t think that my experience is that much different than many business users. Facebook mail has its place, but so does email. I suspect it will for a very long time until instant messaging can overcome the things that email excels at.