Email Is Slow and Creates Distance. That’s Why It’s Great.
Every morning around 9 o’clock, I walk down a narrow flight of stairs to my basement and fire up my work computer. It is a profoundly stupid machine — a PC with a glass outer case, flashing lights and a graphics card that was state-of-the-art back in 2018. The process of starting my day involves signing into three chat clients — Slack, Telegram and Discord — and clicking through any notification bubbles that might have popped up in the three minutes that have passed since I last checked those same apps on my phone.
Once all that’s done, I feel a mild but persistent anxiety because my PC does not support my iPhone’s text messaging, so when I type away on this newsletter, I periodically tap the surface of my phone to see if anyone has sent me anything. I understand how the type of work that I do, which involves several people in front of computers collaborating on Slack to produce the words you’re reading right now, benefits from an efficient and direct form of messaging where queries and announcements don’t get lost as easily as they do in an email inbox.
When I was in my late 30s, I worked as a correspondent on a nightly television news show. And while I wished our newsroom had more of the hectic glamour of the film “Broadcast News” with Holly Hunter stomping around from office to office and a fleet of production assistants hurriedly wheeling carts filled with videotape through a maze of desks, I could appreciate why it was probably just easier, and in many ways safer, to communicate via Slack.
And yet, I don’t particularly like the chaos of my messaging life. Not all efficient systems are pleasant, nor should we simply accede to every improvement that streamlines our work lives. I was thinking about this last week when I read Margaret Renkl’s excellent essay “The Kids Are Right About Email, Too.” Renkl argues that while email was nice back in the day when people had the time to type out lengthy, thoughtful paragraphs to one another, it has now become a dumpster of “reply-all responses to bulk messages, shipping notifications, fund-raising pleas, systemwide reminders and, of course, spam.”
Renkl, of course, is right. (I hope you don’t think of this newsletter’s arrival in your inbox twice a week as contributing to the clutter.) I have six email addresses that all get flooded with everything from online sports betting promotions to real estate listings in cities I’ve never visited to announcements about a new form of cryptocurrency or whatever. Miraculously, almost all of these addresses have zero unread messages in them. But this feat of digital pruning is accomplished by hastily archiving hundreds of emails a day, which does lead to real emails sometimes getting dumped as collateral damage.
Under these conditions, carrying on about the golden era of emails feels divorced from reality. A few years ago in a park, I saw a man in stiff, old-timey clothing that looked like it had been stolen from a Civil War exhibit struggling to pedal a Penny Farthing bicycle — one of those antique numbers with the giant front wheels — up a very slight incline. I felt a mild contempt for his style of useless nostalgia, which I imagine is how young people today might feel whenever they receive a lengthy email from me.
But while a Penny Farthing does nothing for anyone other than inefficient propulsion enthusiasts, I do think there’s still value in the unavailability that separates email from a messaging service like Slack or even text messages. As Renkl notes, “the whole world is right there, buzzing in our pockets,” which is a state of affairs that most people do not enjoy, just as most people recoil in horror when they see the weekly readout for how much time they’ve spent staring at their phone.
Almost nobody can afford to drop fully out of all these notifications — if you have a job, you have a boss who expects an answer at a certain time. Your company is likely to invest in communication infrastructure that places more pressure on you to respond in an increasingly quicker fashion. We generally feel helpless against these demands, which then just pulls us deeper into the apps. During the early weeks of the pandemic, I was spending 13 hours a day on my phone, a total I promised myself would go down once I stopped feeling the need to read every preprint scientific paper and case count update. My screen time has stayed more or less at that same level throughout the past two years.
So if our work routines have been irrevocably lost to the apps, what about our social lives? Sometimes I find myself deep into a conversation in one text thread or another, and I realize that I have no idea what is happening in this person’s life; I only really know what tweets they find annoying, what basketball highlights they are gawking over and what they think about the daily gossip in our industry.
I don’t really want to correspond with my friends with the amount of frequency and immediacy that I use with my co-workers, not because I don’t want to hear from them, but because I want our conversation to reflect the fact that we, in many cases, have not seen each other in person since the pandemic began.
I would rather just send them an email. The frenetic pace of group chats, for example, might be appropriate for my kind of work, but I find it exhausting and in some ways warped to carry on as I do in my personal life. In group chats with friends I find that I am far more combative, much more touchy and careless with my friends’ emotions than I would ever be in person.
This, I believe, is because all sides are a bit more available than good friends should be, not emotionally, but just in terms of time. It’s like we have all been on a long stretch of travel together and the only thing we have left to discuss is the service at the hotel restaurant and our middle-seat assignment on the flight home. Updating a friend who lives across the country via email feels like the perfect mix of thought (who sends emails anymore except to people they want to hear from?) and actual acknowledgment of the gulf between you.
In an attempt to derail these unfortunate trends, I have begun shuttling some of my nonwork correspondences to email. What I’ve found is that because it’s become so anomalous, neither the person on the other side nor I really expect an immediate answer. Or if I do, the endless clutter of the inbox makes me actually forget that I’m waiting for something. When I do receive replies, they’re almost always pleasant surprises, and I feel much better appraised than I would over months of texts in which the pace and the endlessness of our correspondences make us forget the distance.
I have one piece of advice for anyone who wants to return to the old days of email: Set up a separate account for all of your lengthy correspondences and check it about once every two or three days. This, more or less, is the relationship I have with the emails I receive from the readers of this newsletter. As I mentioned in last week’s edition, my reader email address has resulted in dozens of meaningful exchanges, the sort of stuff I rarely find on social media.
Perhaps email will never again be the preferred form of digital communication, but much like vinyl records, it may be able to provide a pleasant ritual that slows down the flood of notifications, if only for a moment.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”