You've Got Mail
I’m not much into instant messaging. I’d say that Messenger or Discord was forced upon me rather than chosen. Having said that, it’s great for chatting without any structure or overarching goal. It often becomes just link sharing with some comments, but still - for this use case, it’s great. Like talking in a bar over a beer.
But nothing beats good old emails for longer, more demanding conversations. Recently I’ve mentioned that this blog became a source for a few interesting discussions. And they are still alive.
Note that I’ve been raised in the IRC days, so Usenet and BBSes are things I’ve missed. Most of the things I’ll mention will be evident for graybeards. Also, note that this applies to interpersonal communication. Business email has different rooting, and spam you may send is an entirely different problem.
Having said that, I’ve learned a few things.
Not having a comment system is a feature. One-on-one conversations are much more intimate and thoughtful exchanges of thoughts. Having to provide one’s email address is much easier, as it’s never revealed to the public or some shady company (Disqus?)
Long-form still rocks. A lot of modern approaches to email I’ve seen try to mimic IM applications and pretend that email is a fast-paced reply shootout, preferably one line. Email is a direct descendent to (surprise!) physical mail, and the lineage is strong. Snail mail used to occupy multiple sheets of paper, which is where it shines. You can get wordy to get to your point, and it’s great.
Slow-paced conversations are the way to construct thoughts. With IM, you get read markers unless you disable them. And with that checkmark comes a silent expectation of a swift reply. And with that comes the worst thing coming from Japan - emoji. Yes, you can use them in email, but a single smiley face is not a reply to an email. You are not expected to reply now, today, or even soon. Like in the days of the postman, you can take your time and think about what you want to write. A single, well-structured, and thorough thought message is much better than 10 brainless reactions. But please, reply with “I’ll reply when I have some time” if the wait will be longer. Don’t keep someone waiting!
Plain text is still the king. Attaching a 10 MB gif would be annoying when you are discussing. Making text red and huge would be painful. You can (and should) use text decoration (asterixes, underscores, capitalization of words) as this is a mean to pass the message. But an image macro? Nope.
With plain text, you get a few basic rules which make email conversations much easier:
- Use bottom-posting. Email clients often put you over the original message; ignore it and take over control.
- Quotations work. Modern collaboration tools, like Confluence, often allow for replying to part of the document. This comes from email. You can create a few new lines in the quotation of the original message and reply directly there. It makes reading much more straightforward. This is the biggest improvement email has over snail mail.
- You can (and should) redact the quoted text. The sender knows what he wrote, the quotation is just to organize the conversation. Feel free to remove parts of the messages you are not replying to. Without it, the message body will become unmanageable after a few emails.
- Use smileys, not emojis. This is highly personal, but graphical faces (or vegetables) hijack my eyes when reading text. Smiley will convey your emotion or add some emotional context while still being part of the message. Emojis will be the thing the reader will notice.
I love plain text so much that I have completely disabled HTML when reading/composing emails to all my clients. You can read more about it in use plain text webpage. Rember that plain text comes with the inability to track. It’s great for all parties involved!
Last but not least, get a desktop client if you want to invest in email. Once you get addicted (like me), you’ll quickly start joining newsgroups. When multiple people start replying to a thread, having a real tree view is a lifesaver. All web clients I know either flatten the conversation based on the time of the message or will get lost entirely in the timeline. But in reality, each message in the thread is a reply to a given email. Being able to see it as a tree makes reading actually enjoyable.
A final note: email is as private as you make it. It’s just text, so what you put there is up to you. Metadata (headers) are for all to see, but you can encrypt the body using GPG. This way, no one except the receiver can read it and use it against you. Using a real email rather than a web client makes it a breeze. Remember that any service is free if the provider can create a profile of you tailored for advertisers and governments.
I’ve rediscovered the joy of email and want more. If you find any of this interesting, drop me a message.
Ps. The title and all images in this post come from a cute movie starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks made back in the heyday of romantic comedies.