Today, email turns 44 years old.
If that doesn’t already sound odd, consider this: We upgrade our smartphones and laptops every few years, yet we’re using those very devices to communicate via a crusty old protocol that’s barely changed in half a century.
But there’s a more important, more existential problem: email consumes us. Adobe surveyed 400 American white-collar workers in 2015 and found that on average, we use email six hours a day (or 30+ hours a week).
Several months ago, I decided it was time to pull myself out of this quagmire. Today, on the 44th anniversary of its birth, I am declaring email dead. At least to me. If you’re willing to jump over a few hurdles, you too can free yourself from its clutches.
If you’re not already convinced that it’s time to say goodbye to email, here are a few reminders of why it sucks:
1. It’s not secure (and simply never can be)
Most email travels around the internet in clear text. Even when message bodies are encrypted, which is rare, the metadata still have to be sent in clear text.
Because it’s so prevalent, and because it’s easy, spearphishing attacks have caused dozens of major crises over the years: Sony, the DNC/Podesta and Hillary were all victims of simple, un-sexy email password theft. More recently, Reality Leigh Winner (an NSA whistleblower who allegedly smuggled classified documents out of a SCIF and snail-mailed them to The Intercept) was recently apprehended in Trump’s first major bust-the-leaker case. Why? Traces left behind by emails sent to the media from her work computer.
2. It’s chatty (and the chat logs live forever)
One email touches dozens of servers as it travels to and fro, leaving a digital trail a mile wide across the internet. The sender and the recipient have no way of knowing who has seen, captured or even altered the state of an email while in transit. Neither party has any control over the security of any of the logs, something that varies substantively from one data center/network to another.
3. It’s overrun by spam and near-spam
Even if we don’t get actual spam, we often inadvertently (or not) sign up for mailing lists and notifications while shopping online, reading news, etc. leaving our inboxes cluttered with junk, much like snail mail.
4. It’s a CC mishap waiting to happen
We’ve all been on email threads from hell where 20 people somehow end up on the CC line. We’ve all said the wrong thing, had it CC’d to the wrong person and had it come back to bite us. But it gets even more insidious: People can seamlessly add or remove other people from the CC line, either hastening the spread of foot-in-mouth disease or leaving key people out of an important conversation.
Even when we think we know who we’re communicating with, let’s not forget about the endless wonders of BCC.
Even when we’re aware of everything on the TO and CC lines, we have no way of authenticating that sending to someone’s email address will actually result in that someone receiving the message. (Perhaps not, because someone just fell victim to a phishing attack.)
5. It’s the worst possible way ever to share living documents
There are dozens of better ways to collaborate, yet somehow people still send documents as email attachments asking for feedback, creating untoward madness.
Email is a never-ending, relentless time-sink in which the important gets drowned out by the worthless screaming, “Look at me!”
Believe it or not, it wasn’t the above that pushed me to do away with email; rather, it was a conversation I had with my then-10-year-old daughter. At the time she was (and still is) an avid iMessage user. (I’ve never seen so many emoticons!) When I tried to describe email, she asked, “Why is it better than txt?”
And—despite my self-proclaimed mansplaining prowess—I didn’t have a good answer for her.
Why not? Because it’s not better than iMessage. In fact, it’s far, far worse.
On that day I started the process of moving away from email. Fast-forward several months and I’ve reduced my inbox to a healthy, manageable non-urgent notification queue filled up entirely of things I actually want to see, put there almost entirely by bots, some of my own design.
If you fancy the same or something similar, consider the following steps:
1. Verify your digital identity
Set up Keybase. It’s super geeky, so it might not be clear what you’re doing, but do it anyway. In laymen’s terms you’re “signing” your digital identities (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) so that people have a way of knowing that when they’re talking to you, they’re really talking to you and not someone (or something) else.
2. Embrace a secure messaging app
Any of these send encrypted messages: iMessage, FaceTime audio (or video), WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Google Phone/Messenger, Skype, Twitter DM or Slack. There are hundreds of others. Of course, YMMV based on how much you trust the companies responsible for these apps not to get hacked.
I’m trying to make Signal (by Open Whisper Systems) my goto messaging app. The UI is a little rough around the edges, but the emphasis on security, disappearing messages and a really slick device onboarding flow more than makes up for it. Give it a try.
As an added benefit, your conversations remain organized by person and not by message, which more accurately models the way people communicate IRL.
Ironically, you might get email notifications that you’ve received messages on some of the above platforms, which is okay (see #5).
3. Use Google Docs to Collaborate
Like with your choice of messaging app, you’re putting your trust in a vendor. Google, from any angle, is a pretty safe bet, especially if you’ve enabled TFA (Two-factor Authentication) for yourself and all your collaborators.
4. Set up an auto-responder
The auto-responder covers the edge case of someone actually trying to write me an email in the traditional sense. They get a short note asking them to find me on: 1. Facebook, 2. Twitter or 3. Signal (by phone number). That should work for, respectively: 1. people I know, 2. people I don’t know and 3. people who are close enough to me to already have my phone number. Of course nearly all of the auto-responders will end up getting sent to bots — and they certainly won’t mind.
5. Fine tune your notifications
I use IFTTT to filter out popular stories from the New York Times and email them to me (usually about five a day, unless Trump forgets to take his medications). I also get daily briefings from the Guardian and the WaPo. I get some mass emails from my daughter’s school, from the lindyhop community and from a few editorial sites I really enjoy (Tasting Table, Urban Daddy, Bold Italic and a few others).
Aside from communicating with bots (e.g. shuttling a NYT article delivered by IFTTT to Pocket so I can read it later), I’ve sent no more than two dozen emails this year. My inbox has become a dumping ground for notifications, none of which is urgent or terribly important. I can keep up with them most of the time. Once in a while, I get behind and I mass-delete everything in my inbox, something I can do with a high level of confidence that I haven’t missed anything important.
I’ve ceased using email for all important (and human!) communication and at the same time turned my inbox into a bespoke, bot-generated “daily briefing” of sorts.
Real conversations need authenticity, reliability and privacy. Bots don’t care about those things, so they get relegated to my once-sacrosanct inbox.
Let’s hand email over to the bots. Humans deserve a better way to communicate.
Also published on Medium.