In Praise Of Email

I see that I am, unsurprisingly, not the first to have come up with the idea for this post. (Dan Cohen, Vice Provost for Information Collaboration at Northeastern University, has written a post with the same title on his personal blog here).

However, let me at least add my voice to the (small) chorus singing email’s praises.

(I don’t have a “related posts” plugin for the blog yet, but I have talked about my communications preferences — and stack — more extensively here).

Can you put that in an email?” is probably one of my most oft-repeated phrases and — in the era of WhatsApp chats, Facebook messages, and Instagram — it certainly marks me out as a contrarian.

Yet, although I use all the foregoing services on a daily basis, I remain steadfast and resolute in my belief that email is simply better.

Here’s why.

1: It’s Great For Automation

I love my inbox labels

Whether you’re an old-timer still connecting to an IMAP and SMTP server via a desktop client (or even a real old-timer still using POP3!), or more likely accessing email via a web interface like Gmail, you still have the ability to configure multiple inbox rules to help you filter through your inbox.

In fact, the server-side mail routing you can configure is really almost limitless and the only constraint is the options that your email service provider (ESP) has made available to you.

As I documented before, I use an elaborate series of labels (left) and automatic filtering rules to route inbound messages throughout my inbox.

It’s like having a robotic virtual assistant to constantly sort everything into a filling system.

Compare this with the chaos that is WhatsApp, Facebook, Slack and most instant messaging services. The most advanced action you can take is to segregate old chats into an “Archive”. By comparison, email allows you far more granular control to keep your communication well organized.

2: It’s Highly Scalable

As a communications mode, email is vastly scalable, and most ESPs support more advanced functions such as delegation and pre-deliver processing — not to mention basic tools like autoresponders.

Your host may enforce some constraints around available inbox size but this can usually be obviated by upgrading your package or finding a better host.

If you have to engage in periodic deleting of old messages, email is thankfully organized into a well-ordered file system.

I use Mozilla Thuderbird to create “bundles” out of emails that I am unlikely to ever need again (say, correspondence with old clients), but should probably have on file for reference.

I then upload those to my oldemails bucket on AWS S3.

If they are ever required, they are there for access. Otherwise, they needn’t take up space.

WhatsApp and Facebook, by comparison, have proprietary backup-takers, but none which I can fully control programatically. The reason is obvious — they’re intended to host low volumes of chats, not to contain an entire archive of information.

3: It’s Also Interoperable

Some of Zapier’s SMTP integrations

When was the last time you saw a WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger integration on Zapier or IFTTT? As of the time of writing — you didn’t!

As a tool that is still universally used in the enterprise environment, automation providers like the above tend to support email natively.

Of course, the list of things you can do automations from emails received or sent is vastly long and provides ample opportunity for delegation and collaboration.

4: No phone number is needed to use it!

Email can be accessed anywhere you have an internet connection.

Of course, if — as you should! — you protect the login by a Two Factor Authentication (TFA) method, you will also probably want to make sure that you have your hardware key or One Time Password (OPT) app handy as well. However, that’s really about it in terms of access requirements.

Services like WhatsApp are obviously designed to be used from smartphones — and are linked to a cellphone number.

That cellphone number needs to be periodically verified. I’ve once succeeded in using a WhatsApp account tied to an old phone number for three months after discontinuing the line, but that’s the best luck I’ve had.

For travelers, international roaming remains a relatively complex topic — although there are things such as global SIM cards that aim to make that process easier. However, it’s generally more complicated and expensive than simply finding any internet-connected computer whatsoever and using it to access your account.

For this reason alone, I use email wherever possible as a 2FA method rather than SMS, code by automated call, or anything tied to a cellphone.

5: It’s Easy To Back Up!

Relative to Facebook and WhatsApp, email is really easy to back up — which greatly mitigates the risk that a critical file or document will be lost forever due to accidental deletion.

Of course, the exactly methodology for achieving this varies by your ESP.

If you’re also a Gmail (or G-Suite) user than Google Takeouts is an excellent modular data exporter.

You can choose to export all your data hosted on Google for storage elsewhere (remember the 3-2-1 rule for data protection redundancy) or simply choose to export your data.

If not, just Google who you host mail with and backup and documentation shouldn’t be hard to find.

6: It’s In One Place!

I mentioned before how I use the excellent Rambox to periodically view all my inboxes — and how, more recently, I’ve tried to enforce limits as to how often I do that (which I again highly recommend!)

Unfortunately, the array of messaging services and platforms that we’re all societally “expected” to be upon seems to be continuously increasing by the year — which makes keeping up with messages across the board a more challenging task.

(Did you ever stop to think that the only ‘inbox’ people used to have to deal with — save for the odd telegram, and no, I’m not talking about the app! — was their physical post?)

Most young people have a Facebook account. Twitter and Instagram are also considered de rigueur for anybody not yet pushing on middle age. WhatsApp is increasingly universal and — thanks to WhatsApp Business — is increasingly being used in professional contexts and for business to consumer chats. And any ambitious professional also needs to be on LinkedIn.

The beauty of email in this regard is that it’s all in one place — irrespective of the context of the messages being exchanged.

I have a separate Gsuite for business but also automatically copy it into my inbox. So I can really deal with everything from client communications to paying bills and corresponding with friends from the one digital place.

Of course — as an asynchronous communications platform — email is less optimized for instant / highly-responsive modalities such as live chat tools.

In rebuttal to this, I simply reiterate what I wrote in my post about my general communications proclivities: the less I use instant messaging platforms and the less frequently I scan my inbox the happier and more productive I become.

Which brings me to my last point.

As a thirty year old, I feel like I’m one of a dying breed of millennials that actually love email.

Thankfully, I have a few friends who I still regularly exchange emails with. It feels quaint to think of them as ‘pen pals’ (particularly as they’re people I know in real life), but I’ve had some of my best online chats over this medium.

In conclusion: don’t buy the email-haters’ hype.

In the author’s not-so-humble opinion, email remains the greatest online communication method ever devised, affording unmatched scalability, inter-operability, and backup-ability. It’s as practical for use by one person as it is in the enterprise environment. There aren’t many tools you can say the same about.