A little over a week ago personal development blogger Leo Babauta of Zen Habits announced that he was basically giving out email. While he certainly had his reasons and alternative communication tools to use, it seems to me that giving up email is one of the more drastic ways to cut down on information overload. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly in todays world and I think that it’s a choice that could be hard to stick by.
Personally I think it would be almost impossible for me to give up email. I would much rather give up other communication tools like Facebook or Twitter before even considering ditching email. The main reason why I would be really reluctant to give up on email is that its such a flexible medium and I’m a sucker for flexible tools. Email works just as well for short, quick “how are you” messages to longer detailed conversations (especially if you have a good client like Gmail). Sending attachments may not be the best way to collaborate online, but it’s possible and for simply sharing a file (without editing) it’s generally much easier to add an attachment than it is to upload to FTP or something similar.
The second most wonderful thing about email is that it has become a completely open medium. There are dozens of free email services and if need be you can even run your own email server on you own domain and be completely independent. This is far from the case with popular email replacements like Twitter or Facebook. However, there is an open source microblogging platform called Laconi.ca which you can run on your own server. It powers the free indenti.ca service. I feel really uncomfortable about tying my major communication arteries to closed proprietary services which could go down (with or without the intent of the developers). Incidentally, as I write this, I can’t get to twitter or connect via Twitterfox.
Edit: Shortly after I wrote the above it turned out that Twitter had been down for several hours due to a DDoS attack. While it’s true that this could happen to any service (including webmail), I think this shows that Twitter at least isn’t quite ready to be the primary communications channel
The more I think about it, the more it seems that the reasons behind using or ditching email are less technological and more psychological and social. A lot depends on your own communication preferences. An important question is: do you want a small volume of in-depth conversations or do you want a high volume of short-length communications? For someone like Leo Babauta who has thousands of leaders and needs to keep in touch with a large community it makes sense to choose something that will encourage lots of short, to-the-point comments (ie. 140 characters on Twitter). For longer communications he says he wants to use either IM or Skype. This seems to mean that he wants to focus on realtime, direct communication. Again that’s fine for him.
My communication preferences are different. I don’t need to keep up a multi-thousand-way conversation and I get less than a dozen emails a day. It’s more important for me to have in-depth detailed communications with a few people whose ideas are important to me at this time. I also like the asynchronous nature of email since I like to be able to think things through before giving a reaction. I dislike real-time communication like IM and especially phones unless I’ve consciously signed up for a fast paced, brainstorming style discussion with a friend. I also value the ability to be explain my ideas in depth if I need to. Twitter’s 140 character limit is good for posting updates and trading short replies, but I feel it’s really limiting for any sort of detailed discussion (and splitting across multiple tweets just makes things ugly). Leo claims that he checks his Twitter inbox fewer times a day and spends less time on it. He doesn’t keep it always on. For me, I keep Twitter always on and glance at it about once an hour just to see if anything interesting has come. It takes up little of my mental RAM whereas my email is something I consciously spend more time and energy on.
Now this isn’t to say that email doesn’t have its share of problems. Spam is certainly a problem, but I think you’d get that on any communication medium. Email certainly does not work if you want your communications to scale to more than a few people. Sending out an email to lots of people about something they aren’t specifically interested in is often a good way of making sure they don’t read it. If you need to write something that gets read by a lot of people, then a blog, wiki or some other more open platform is definitely the best way to go. Or maybe twitter if what you have to say is short enough.
If you’re currently having problems handing your email, what you need to understand most is that no single tool is good for all people or all tasks. The question of whether or not you should ditch email depends almost entirely on how you as a person work. It depends on whether you need to have public conversations with many or private conversations with not so many. It depends on whether you want to have your replies done as soon as you can or do you prefer to mull over things before putting finger to key. It’s important to keep in mind that no matter what tool or system you use, you’re going to have an inbox and a message queue that you need to manage and respond to. Email is currently the best way for me to maintain a persistent, workable message queue, but it may very well be different for you. To each his or her own.