Los Angeles Times

Will apps ever supplant email?

We curse the stodgy old mail system but would probably regret its passing.


Everyone hates email. It wastes our time, toomuch of it is spam. It’s ugly, it’s slow, it’s unreliable. And did I mention the spam?

Perhaps the worst thing about email is the way it makes us unlikable. I’m a reasonably nice person, but when I start sending emails, watch out. What I think is a perfectly ordinary, levelheade­d email often comes across to other people as demanding or insensitiv­e.

It’s not just me — I’ve seen people get enraged at each other over a seemingly innocuous intra- office email thread that suddenly escalates like an internatio­nal border incident. But when those people get together face to face, the anger and the tension dissipate in minutes. The problem in these situations is clear: It’s the way email enforces a kind of formality, combined with lack of nuance. The combinatio­n can be toxic.

No wonder people are fleeing to messaging apps including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and Kik. And on the enterprise side, nowonder Slack’s business is booming: If you can get your internal company communicat­ions off email and onto a fun plat-

form that encourages productivi­ty, shareabili­ty and searchabil­ity — while supporting GIFs and emoji — it’s a win for everyone.

Yes, there’s no doubt about it: Email is an unholy hack, a broken mess, an ever- growing floating island of garbage and dead fish swirling around in some forgotten part of the ocean. It needs to die, and the sooner the better. And yet. Let’s just imagine a future without email— maybe just a few years hence, when these messaging apps are widespread enough that you could legitimate­ly say “I’m deleting my email account” and not be seen as strange or experiment­al. And, more important, when you could do that and still be confident that the right people could reach you, whether that’s by Twitter DM or Facebook or Slack.

First of all, none of the messaging apps has anywhere near the market penetratio­n and reach of email, which reaches 2.5 billion people today, according to the Radicati Group. So you’ll probably need to keep a few messaging apps: Facebook Messenger for your friends using that, Snapchat for your other group of friends, Slack for work and so on.

Second, these messaging apps all have their own ways of doing things, so each has its own rules and its own interface. Lest you think that’s a small problem, just look at how often people mistakenly send private direct messages to all their Twitter followers. Even the CFO of Twitter made that mistake, and who can blame him? It’s ridiculous­ly easy to do this. So you need to use extra caution with Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat and which ever apps you’re using, to ensure that you are using each one the right way, and not committing some horribly embarrassi­ng ( or business-threatenin­g) mistake.

Third, they’re not interopera­ble. Each messaging app has its own separate platform, its own notificati­ons on my mobile devices, its own list of my friends. You can’t send a message from Messenger to your friend on Kakao-Talk, and you never will be able to. There’s no incentive for these companies to open up their message platforms to all comers.

Fourth, these platforms often lack fundamenta­l features that are actually quite useful. Slack, for instance, still doesn’t have threaded messages. If you don’t reply to someone’s post super quick, you might as well forget about it, because someone else is going to start another conversati­on and then no one will knowwhat you’re replying to. ( I know there is a workaround, but it’s kludgey.) Or how about filters and folders? It’s often quite useful to filter messages from a certain person— your boss, for example — into a special high- priority folder, where you can give it special attention, or save it along with all the other messages that person sent.

Fifth: Spam. You may not have noticed it, but if you’re a Gmail user, outright spam is getting rarer and rarer in your inbox, thanks to ever more sophistica­ted spam filtering. Google has spent more than a decade honing its spam algorithms, andthe result works pretty darn well. Twitter, by contrast: If you missed the old days of X10 camera spam and offers for green card lawyers, just turn on the setting that lets anyone send you a direct message even if you’re not following them. Google’s spam mechanism has the equivalent of a PhD, while Twitter’s is still in kindergart­en.

Finally, there’s one more angle to consider: Email, from a marketer’s point of view, actually works, with a return on investment of 38 to 1, according to DBS data. There’s a reason that Twitter and Slack, despite being their own messaging platforms, still send daily emails to people. For many Internet users, email is still the way they’d prefer to be contacted, and companies are happy to oblige, because engagement levels are somuch higher than in other media.

And email marketing companies are thriving — Campaign Monitor, to name one example, raised $ 250 million last year.

Now, you could argue that this is exactly the problem: Too much email marketing is making email useful only for marketing. But I think the reason email marketing works so effectivel­y is because, at the end of the day, people are still very attached to their inboxes.

We may complain about email. We may suffer from crappy email clients and all company email threads that never end. Our inboxes may never get close to zero.

But if the current crop of messaging apps really did succeed in killing off email, I think we would all start to miss it pretty soon.

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