Gilster: Not ready to give up on email, but ready for something better

CorrespondentOctober 20, 2013 

Ever think about how much we rely on email? Try life without it for a while. Last week I noticed that I was getting far fewer messages than usual. A sense of exhilaration descended upon me. An empty inbox! I stopped enjoying it when, on Sunday morning, my Gmail account suddenly popped up absolutely choked with messages. For three days, hardly any mail. Then, in a flash, messages dating back as far as five days that had inexplicably not appeared before.

I discovered that Gmail upsets aren’t unheard of. A month ago Google users were experiencing delayed emails and attachment problems, and the company began providing regular updates that led to a resolution of the issue. I haven’t heard of a widespread Gmail problem during the period my mail went missing, but I do know that other services, such as Yahoo Mail, have had recent downturns, with some users not getting their mail at all because of forwarding problems.

After answering several hundred back messages, I pondered whether I should follow Paul Jones’ lead and abandon email entirely. Jones is the well-known UNC-Chapel Hill professor who runs the online archive, as canny and entertaining a tech guru as any I’ve known. And while he wrote a lot of the code that got UNC’s first email system up and running 30 years ago, Jones is now famous for abandoning email entirely in favor of a variety of social media platforms.

Open source attitude

It’s an intriguing notion. Maybe rather than sending a large file as an attachment to an email, you should use a service such as DropBox, which is crafted explicitly to handle this kind of thing. Want to collaborate on a document? Google Docs is an infinitely more sensible way to go – just try sending version after version of a text document to multiple colleagues by email and try to keep everything straight. You can see where this is going: Jones likes to use modern tools with specific functions rather than older, broken tools that create as many problems as they solve.

It’s an open source attitude that in many ways I endorse. Instead of using a big, bloated program (I’m looking at you, Microsoft Word), use smaller, focused tools that can work in tandem to get the job done. What’s the best way to exchange personal confidences online? Rather than email, think about Skype. Schedules can be managed by exchanging emails, but how much more sensible to use calendaring systems such as Google Calendar? If you need a quick answer about something, why not send a text message through a mobile device instead of an email?

Central information source

I’m fascinated with Jones’ experiment. If you can name a social platform, from Facebook to Gtalk to LinkedIn to YouTube, you will find a way to reach him on it, but forget about email. I’ve looked at almost all the social media tools myself and have experimented with a fair number of them, but the virtue of email for people like me is that it’s a central information source. It’s balky at times and full of spam, and puts limits on the size of things I want to send, but it’s also a common watering hole for my contacts. Am I going to become inaccessible without email?

Jones’ example says no, but I’m skeptical. Many of the people I work with are familiar with one or another social media sites but almost universally prefer to communicate by email. This is ironic because these are people in the aerospace business – they really are “rocket scientists” – but they’re as traditional as Norman Rockwell when it comes to digital tools. So I’m not giving up on email, but I do remember how little I missed it when it was down. If fast, mobile alternatives are out there, pioneering thinkers such as Jones are showing us how to make the transition.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at

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