[FoRK] PEBKAC, In Defense of Email

Stephen Williams sdw at lig.net
Sat Mar 9 14:50:03 PST 2013

Heh.  And the motion is so adopted:pebkac coined.
> Really? If you ask me, I think the problem exists largely between keyboard and chair (see illustration).

It puzzles me a little why people insist on sticking with terrible email programs (Outlook) and even waste money on them 
(Outlook) and even use unstable, buggy, expensive email servers (Exchange) and then complain or cause complaints due to their 
infantile email ability.  Or they simply can't read quickly enough to digest a thorough email message and would rather waste an 
hour of everyone's time synchronously hearing the same information, and then not have a copy of it to refer to later.

In Defense Of Email
DAVE GIROUARDSaturday, February 16th, 201327 Comments
Editor’s note: Dave Girouard is founder and CEO of Upstart, a company that lets college grads raise capital in exchange for a 
small share of their future income. Previously he was president of enterprise at Google. Follow him on Twitter @davegirouard.

“Nobody uses email anymore – you get too much of it” – Yogi Berra

In last Sunday’s New York Times, we were treated to another rant about how dysfunctional and burdensome email has become. This 
particular piler-on lays the blame at “how stagnant the format of email has remained, while the rest of communication and social 
networking has surged light years ahead.”

Really? If you ask me, I think the problem exists largely between keyboard and chair (see illustration).

I don’t mean to say that email providers can’t do a better job of serving their users (raise your hand if you don’t want Gmail 
to be faster), but innovation in email is anything but stagnant. In my view, the 30-year old “Simple Mail Transfer Protocol” 
(aka SMTP) has served us remarkably well, and continues to do so.

I’ve always felt that the “overwhelmed by my inbox” meme was a combination of humblebrag and mismanagement. Those Twitter posts 
bemoaning too much email often sound like somebody complaining about too many invitations to the prom – an “everybody wants me” 
or “I’m in such demand” kind of boast. In reality, a lot of people do have too many messages in their inboxes, but it’s hardly 
the fault of email itself. They’re just doing it wrong.

Another popular bromide suggests email is an evil time suck that prevents us from getting work done. For many – particularly 
engineers, designers, artists, or writers who need extended periods of concentration – this is undoubtedly true. Email can be a 
distraction that breaks our concentration if we allow it to do so. But for many of us, email actually is our work – or at least 
a vital part of it.

If I followed the popular guidelines suggesting one should only check email once or twice a day, I can virtually guarantee it 
would slow down our progress at Upstart. To a large extent, email is how we communicate and get things done. At Google, my prior 
employer, I can state confidently that the company would (and did) grind to a halt if email weren’t available.

I’m bemused by the CEOs who declare their companies are giving up email. Why? So they can go back to those oh-so-productive 
in-person meetings and phone calls? We tried that. It was called the ’80s. For what it’s worth, I’m a big believer that there 
are many conversations that are better had on the phone, or in person, but that in no way minimizes the monstrous productivity 
improvements that email has wrought. What company has lasted even a month without email?

The ultimate obituary for email is that it’s for, well … old people. Millennials will tell you that email is where they go when 
they want to write a formal letter (how us GenXers thought about actual letter writing) or to get my Amazon receipts. There is 
some truth to this. Without question, text messaging has taken its rightful place as a superior and universal tool when the 
message is short, and the timing is now. And we should be glad to get that stuff out of our inbox. Yet somehow it hasn’t left 
our inboxes barren.

And what of Facebook and Twitter? Or those myriad enterprise social apps that spell doomsday for email? There’s a reason why the 
newsfeed of your favorite social app can’t and won’t replace email. Using a social stream to contact somebody is akin to driving 
past your friend’s house in order to visit them. Yes that’s right – just smile, wave out the window, and keep on going, rather 
than pulling into their driveway. That’s the newsfeed. The more these social products attempt to implement more directed forms 
of messaging, the more they create half-baked (or even lesser) versions of email. I should admit that there’s one area where 
Facebook has left email in the dust: you never need to remember or update another email address. But the price you pay, in terms 
of reliance on a single and proprietary platform, is steep. This is an obvious shortcoming of email that should be fixed.

By the way, if email is dead, why is it that every social/local/mobile app in the world is intent on notifying you via email 
every time a butterfly flaps its wings? Because that’s the only place you’ll reliably receive the notification and re-engage 
with their app.

Listen here, email haters. That protocol from 1982 called SMTP, and the ecosystem of applications and services based on it, are 
blessed with certain virtues that we’ve all taken for granted. First, it’s not controlled by any one company. Like SMS, SMTP is 
a very basic communication protocol that allows for virtually unlimited innovation around it. Threaded conversations? Check. 
Priority inbox? Check. Forgotten attachment detector? Check. And as Mailbox has shown, by building a simple feature that pushes 
emails off until a time you feel like receiving them, you can build a company that will receive countless term sheets from 
venture capitalists (presumably in your inbox).

To the piler-on at the New York Times, I have a few suggestions to relieve the dread you apparently feel each time you come face 
to face with your inbox:

1. Use a modern email service that has features that put you in control. I’m naturally partial to Gmail, as almost half a 
billion people on the planet seem to be.

2. Turn off social network notifications. They seem to be such a huge source of your angst, yet they don’t need to be. Just turn 
them off.

3. Don’t sign up for mail lists unless you really need to. Nobody can force you. Ok, maybe your boss can. But this is mostly in 
your control.

4. Filter stuff out of your inbox that isn’t urgent. The glory of virtually unlimited email storage (an innovation of the last 
eight or so years) is that you don’t have to keep everything in your inbox, yet you can find it when you need it or browse 
through it when you have time.

5. If, after carefully considering and adhering to the advice above, you’re still inundated with a tidal wave of unwanted email, 
you might consider being grateful that people actually take the time to write you.

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