My cursor blinked at me. I blinked back, confused, disoriented. What was I doing here? Where was I going? In a brief moment of panic, my mind sputtered and choked, like a hand-me-down Pontiac trying to start on a cold day. I had come to this place with a clear intention, but I could neither remember why I came here nor what it was I had set out to do. All I could remember was that an outdoor equipment shop from which I had presumably once purchased something was offering me a 25% discount, and that a nearby film festival I had once attended had just announced its lineup for the year. Beneath these critical breaking news-bites, whatever it was I had originally wanted to search for was buried in an endless pile of emails.
It is difficult to find somebody who does not, at least, aspire to live a more organized digital life. Of the millions of threads dedicated to the topic, perhaps none are so vigorously debated and discussed as email. Reddit is filled with advice on achieving email zen mastery and “Inbox Zero” has become such a widely-used term that it has entered into our collective lexicon.
While I have made a not-insignificant attempt to keep my inbox organized and free of clutter over the years, email, more than any other digital workspace, has resist my efforts. Email has become the single most cognitively demanding todo our collective digital todo lists, and email culture, enabled by technology and design conventions that haven’t been fundamentally re-thought since their inception, encourages us to be constantly tethered to our devices, checking and re-checking them compulsively, responding to queries and demands before some unknown too-late time when the earth implodes.
Despite a parade of feature-packed modern email apps, integrations, and add-ons, I have yet to successfully conquer the raging rivers of inbound messages that flow, like the Ganges, into my inbox each day. No matter what I try, the technology has always felt misshapen — like a glove that has the wrong number of fingers and is a size too small. Yet in this Age of Tech we live in, it seems nearly laughable that such a problem — a problem we all gripe about so frequently and with such fervour — has no clear solution.
SMTP and The First Nigerian Prince
This is, in fact, is no coincidence. SMTP, the core protocol upon which ‘contemporary’ email is based, is a relic of the 1980’s, and hasn’t fundamentally changed since then. It was designed to facilitate simple node-to-node communication on the closed, primordial networks of early ARPANET — that is, it was designed to allow one person sitting at a machine at one end of a building to send a short plain-text note to another person sitting at a machine at the other end… similar to leaving a sticky note on a colleague’s desk. In this context, it worked well: there was no e-commerce, no rich HTML, no spammers or spoofers, no transactional emails, no advertisers or marketing automation robots. Life was simple. Presumably, the creators of SMTP patted themselves on the backs for a job well done and moved on to other things, like figuring out how reverse-engineer their Atari consoles.
Fast-forward nearly a half-century and the internet has become a different place, a much larger place. In fact, it is millions of times larger: in 1986 there were roughly 2,000 computers connected to the internet. Today there are 4.5 billion . Riding on the coat-tails of this mass adoption, email became the de-facto method for online communication, and SMTP became embedded, invisibly, into our daily lives.
At some point during this explosive growth, enterprising businesses and technologies began to co-opt email for other purposes. This caused a splintering of paradigms: what had once been a simple person-to-person letter delivery service became a newsfeed, a file-transfer service, a corporate intranet, a filing cabinet, and even a virtual ID-badge. Email also rapidly became a way for advertisers, marketers, and spammers to leverage the power of technology to connect directly and inexpensively with billions of consumers, without having to ask for permission or bypass gate-keepers. By the time the first lonely divorcee fell for the first Nigerian Prince scam, email had far outgrown its original shape. The simple letter delivery service — originally envisioned as a technology to facilitate internal chat between a handful of colleagues at work — came to function as a tool for a vast array of complex interactions between humans and software with diverse intents.
Layers Upon Layers
Although there have been some updates in intervening years to address SMPT’s most insidious faults and make it more secure, this multiplicity still exists. Private companies like Google and Microsoft have built their own software layers overtop email in order to add features and innovate, but while these admittedly have done much to improve user experience, they have done little to alter the underlying division of paradigms — paradigms that were never well-suited to SMTP’s design in the first place.
These layers have created some intriguing (and often frustrating) inconsistencies. If you have ever gone from one email client to another and found your entire world turned upside-down you probably understand: interactions differ, UI are inconsistent, and even the most basic organizational patterns are completely dissimilar across different email apps. Consider Gmail’s ‘labels,’ which are actually folders in traditional email clients. The paradigms are different, and they suggest completely different design patterns; you might apply many labels to a single email, but only place it in one folder. While Gmail is often the most innovative platform when it comes to email clients, it is also one of the most troublesome, because it is both a client and a service provider (an email server). If you want to access any of Gmail’s admittedly powerful automation or organizational features, you are compelled to use an @gmail.com address or sell your soul to G Suite. If you also need to access email accounts on other servers as I do, you must eschew Gmail completely, or live a double life.
In any case — regardless of the particular flavour — this new-interface-old-protocol approach leaves much to be desired. It is the reason that, despite the valiant efforts of brilliant UX designers and product managers and engineers in Silicone Valley, billions of dollars sunk into email client development, and despite my own endless attempts to stay “organized”, I am still greeted by a flickering dumpster-fire of newsletters, flyers, transactional emails, and other such nonsense each time I open my inbox.
Too Far Gone?
The progenitors of SMTP likely didn’t envision a world where spam-bots sold drop-shipped body-jewelry to hordes of drooling consumers using automated email campaigns. It is unlikely that they would have predicted the abysmal state of disarray, distraction, and anxiety enabled by email.
But there’s an interesting question here. If the solution is stale, why is change so elusive? Indeed, why not simply throw out email en-mass and move on to a better solution? We are, after all, living in 2020: modern messaging apps like Slack are gaining market-share, more new technologies are born into the world each day, and we are in the midst of a revolution in the way we communicate, both at work and in our personal lives. So why can’t we evolve from email?
The answer is nuanced. Certainly there are practical barriers to supplanting email and SMTP: email is embedded in everything that we do. Most modern web-based software rely on the ability to send notifications and communicate with users outside of their application shells: think of Facebook alerting you of a new friend request — or, in a more serious example, your bank alerting you of a security breach. While mobile phone notifications may offer a convenient alternative, these can easily be missed and mobile operating systems are highly varied in their delivery methods. Email serves as a critical backup; a communication channel that software developers can safely assume all users will have access to, no matter what other hardware or software they use.
In commerce, too, email is charged with import — without it, firms cannot do business. While this may seem a mundane statement of fact, consider that before email, an individual in Cincinnati needing to purchase a widget from Calcutta would have to place a phone call (or worse — a telex!) to an individual there during the precise window in which their time zones aligned (if at all), and have a conversation in real-time. If — god forbid — a document had to be signed via post, the transaction might take weeks, or even months. Using email, Quintillions of these transactions happen each day, and, incredibly, all of them on the same system.
In this sense email has become a sort of global lingua franca — it enables us all to communicate asynchronously, no matter where we are. The notion that anyone might migrating to a new technology that is incompatible with email, and thusly give up their membership to the most widely used communication system on the planet, is absurd.
Even if a company did enter the market with a complete, cohesive replacement for email, it would be unlikely to succeed, as the success of any real solution would rely on its ability to replace email as the standard asynchronous communication system — a feat that would require market penetration at an absolutely enormous scale (in 2019 one study found there were roughly 3.9 billion active email users . Such an endeavour would not only demand vast resources, but collusion with existing large-scale email service providers (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo) who would be unlikely to have much interest in cannibalizing their own revenue-streams from apps like Gmail and Outlook.
So, if email is too big to replace, why not simply overhaul it?
The Bureau of Internet Everything
The answer to this question lies in a technical document written by a man named Jonathan Postel and published by the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California in Marina Del Ray in August of 1982. Postel, then 39 years old and already sporting a bushy greying beard, was a volunteer administrator for the fledgling internet, and had already contributed to many of its pioneering technologies. This document, simply titled “RFC 821,” introduced the original model, procedure, and specifications for SMTP. Its successors (“RFC 2821”, “RFC 5321”, and “RFC 7504”, among others) spell out the evolution of the technology over the last forty years. These documents, known as “Request for Comments,” are authored by individuals or groups of engineers, and describe methods, behaviours, research, and innovations applicable to the workings of the internet and its corollary systems. They are published for peer review, and, if approved by general consensus, can later be adopted as Internet Standards: common processes, methods and technologies that software developers build into the various nodes that make up the internet. These standards enable effective communication between routers, servers, and other internet hubs, all produced by different manufacturers. Decisions about the internet and its technical underpinnings are driven by committee, rather than by individual stakeholders, which can add significant drag to the implementation of new protocols and systems. especially when those protocols — like SMTP — are used by billions of internet users.
At its root, this is one of the most powerful and most frustrating aspects of modern internet governance. While such a consensus-driven and cooperative development model allows nearly anyone to make contributions to the internet and ensures that no single entity can co-opt the system to advance their own agendas, it makes rapid systemic overhaul virtually impossible as there is no single decision-maker in charge who can make the kinds of sweeping, authoritarian decisions that are sometimes necessary to innovate.
This sort of change requires a different type of development model — the Jobsian leadership that the private sector has become known for — and herein lies the paradox: email is far too large to be simply replaced, and the mechanisms for its development are far too conservative to allow it to be completely overhauled. The issue isn’t so much that we humans lack the ingenuity to invent solutions to the problem of email and modern online communication, but that the problem itself is so multi-faceted. This isn’t just an issue of technology, but one of governance, of free markets, and of scale.
Fast Innovation, Slow Innovation
So what, then, is left? Do we allow our inboxes to languish while our communication increasingly fragments into an endless web of interactions on various apps and intranets? The switchboard for a modern knowledge worker might not only include email inboxes, but a dizzying combination of Slack teams, WeChat groups, Facebook Messenger threads, Instagram DMs, iMessages, and more — many of these networks overlapping and competing for attention. This is the free market at work, and, in moments of inbox overwhelm, it is easy to forget that the same dynamics that created this overabundance have already brought us a measure of relief from the tyranny of email: a few short years ago all of these conversations were happening, awkwardly and asynchronously, in our the reply-all mega-threads of our inboxes.
There is much to applaud here: Slack and Microsoft Teams, for example, have have given us smart, fast, straightforward ways to send messages and share documents within a sandboxed internal business environment. WeChat, Facebook Messenger, and other social media have enabled us to share rich, expressive media with our friends. It is true that our digital lives are increasingly fragmented, but it is also true that we have more, and better ways of communicating than ever before. This is the paradox of our digital age, a dualism that constitutes a sort of “it’s complicated” relationship status between us and our technology.
So what about email? Good ole’ SMTP is probably here to stay, but that doesn’t mean that it will always be the SMTP of yore. Despite the slowness with which the technology evolves, it does evolve — as of this writing there are numerous internet drafts in circulation that offer proposed solutions to spam, security, and other issues. There are even discussions about the merits of building new, hybrid email servers using newer protocols that are backwards-compatible with SMTP. All of this amounts to mere ideation, of course, but in the world of internet protocols and web technologies evolving at the scale of many billions of users, community ideation and discussion represent vital steps — and important checks — in the development of new methods.
And while email continues to evolve to be faster, more secure, and easier to manage, the private sector will continue to innovate, perhaps carving out even more territory from our inboxes, and offering us even more opportunities to untether ourselves from email. In some ways, this may represent the ultimate solution: a world in which email remains simple and ubiquitous, and a wealth of private enterprise software offer us abundant alternatives should our work demand more elegance or functionality.
In many ways, this is already the case.
Meanwhile, back at my desk, I shake the fog from my confused brain and take sip of coffee. I still cannot remember why I had originally come to my inbox, but I have a few emails to reply to anyway. I get on with it unhurriedly, turn off my computer, and go outside.