You know what I hate? Email. I hated it before I left the internet, and I hate it now. It's a cancer on our society. It is all-consuming. Email has absorbed into itself short messages, long messages, cute conversations between two people, futile conversations between a dozen people, calendar invites, Twitter subscription notifications, Facebook friend requests, password recovery, file exchange, file storage, coupons, project management, newsletters, infighting, backbiting, apologies, diatribes, bills, receipts, payments, and the great how-to-stay-organized minds of our generation.
As the months pass since my departure from the internet, my friends are getting better and better about slip-ups like "hey, check this out," or "just Google it," but "just email me" persists. If I ask for contact information, I'm looking for a name and a phone number, but I get an email instead. There's something so ingrained about email. I don't have the phone numbers, home addresses, or even Tumblr URLs memorized for most of my friends, but their email addresses spring easily to mind — almost like they are that address.
Of course, someone asking me to email them is a funny joke, and no harm is done to either party. But the default, ubiquitous nature of email is making life difficult in other ways.
Nobody has phone numbers for anybody anymore
For one, nobody has phone numbers for anybody anymore. I'm having a lot of trouble finding leads for stories, because my co-workers have only emailed with potential subjects, never called. And even when I get a phone number, if nobody picks up on the other end, the voicemail I leave is basically worthless — nobody checks their corporate landline's inbox, and a lot of people don't listen to their cellphone's voicemails either.
But the biggest problem I've run into is the "oh, right, you didn't get the email." I expected to be out of the loop when I left the internet, but I thought it would be mostly things that didn't apply to me. This is not the case.
For instance, when I was supposed to attend that Jewish-ultra-orthodox internet rally, there was apparently an epic planning thread. I was asked early on if I wanted to do the piece, and I did, but I didn't find out until a few hours before the rally started which day it was taking place. Sure, it's mostly my fault for not asking, but it's interesting that having an IRL conversation with me about particulars never crossed the mind of any Verge staffers.
I'm also left out of most party invites. I'll frequently find out about a get-together through pure coincidence — I'll call a friend out of boredom, and they'll remember that I'm still alive. "Oh," they'll say, "we're having people over tonight, you should come."
Sometimes when I do get a phone call — which I make sure to be ultra-grateful for, because I never know when it will be my last — I don't get all the details. For instance, I recently ruined a surprise party for a friend, merely because I hadn't been informed that it was a surprise party. I didn't get that email.
Often when I am thought of, it's in the form of an email: one person will email another person, asking them to tell me something. I'm in a number of these one-way conversations on a weekly basis — one-way because I don't want to say "well, can you email them back and say..."
I know nobody means anything by it. Again, this is all my problem, and I'm really inconveniencing others much more than I'm inconveniencing myself. Still, it's hard not to feel like I'm in middle school, and I'm getting the silent treatment from a friend I've recently wronged. I really do feel like I don't exist at times. It's as if I'm Marty McFly, and by leaving the internet, I've retroactively interrupted a blossoming romance between my past-future mom and dad, and now I'm starting to disappear while attempting a sick guitar solo.
Ultimately, I blame email. Email has absorbed so much of who we are and what we do, that by begging off on it, I've begged off on a large chunk of reality.
If you'd like to walk a megabyte in my bandwidth, just try ignoring an important work email thread this week, or a Friday afternoon "who wants to paaarty this weekend?" thread. A few assumptions will be progressively made about you, merely based on your non-participation.
- 10 minutes - You totally skimmed the email, but then archived it.
- 30 minutes - You don't care about the topic, and therefore may not care about the project, the job, your career, your friend group, or even your life.
- 2 hours - You're pissed about something, and are taking it out on everybody passively.
- That evening - When someone texts you to ask "are you okay?" and you don't answer, you might be deathly ill, or going through a depressive episode. You may very well be lying on the floor of your apartment in a coma.
- The next morning - You might be ready for that intervention your friends have been thinking about putting together for you.
- A week later - An empty-casket "we never found the body" memorial service.
People are irresponsibly placing cognitive loads on each other
Like an eskimo, with so many words for snow, I could talk endlessly about email, due to my deep-seated hatred for it. How people are irresponsibly placing cognitive loads on each other, how no email thread can support the weight of a serious decision, how Google Wave could've saved us all, how Sparrow was my inbox's only hope and now Google is going to kill it and when I get back to the internet I'm going to have 20k emails that I'll never read and then I'll quit the internet again because it's stupid.
But I'll leave you with this:
- from: firstname.lastname@example.org
- to: email@example.com
- cc: firstname.lastname@example.org
- bcc: email@example.com
- subject: ugh
- message: friggin' email, amiright?
Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.