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SXSW: How To Win The Battle With E-mail

by Stephen Becker 12 Mar 2016 6:20 PM

It’s the workhorse of communication. But it’s one we can tame.


AUSTIN – Last weekend, Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of e-mail, died.

And now the tech industry is trying to bury his greatest invention.

Hence Saturday morning’s panel discussion during SXSW Interactive called “E-mail is the Devil and Must be Vanquished.”

Vanquished is a little strong. More like tamed.

After all, it’s still the workhorse of both personal and business communication. Brian Braiker, executive editor of Digiday, was tapped to play devil’s advocate during the panel – and he was convincing. Among e-mail’s many positive qualities:

  • It allows us to CYA as he put it (look it up). You can always reference the previous e-mail you sent when there’s conflict.
  • Writing forces you to process your thoughts.
  • It cuts down on phone calls.
  • It’s asynchronous, meaning that co-worker in Japan can respond while you’re asleep.
  • And it’s still the No. 1 traffic driver online. Buzzfeed receives double the clicks from its various e-mail newsletters as it does from Twitter.

What’s not to like?

Plenty, says Pramit Nairi of the advertising agency Rubin, Postaer and Associates. It fragments the day with constant interruptions. It kills creativity and creates anxiety. And it requires you to work hard to figure out which of those e-mails are actually important.

The good news is we can reclaim the time we’ve given over to e-mail. Nairi recommends creating office hours. Those important to you will learn quickly that they’re only getting a response between, say, noon and 3. At the office, he favors group working sessions tied to specific tasks over an endless series of reply-all discussions. And shared workspaces (even virtual ones) that allow for simple questions to be asked and answered directly will cut down significantly on unread messages.

And you know who doesn’t have a daily battle with the inbox? The next wave that will join the workforce.

“We in corporate America are actually envious of the teenager,” says Rachel Kaplowitz, CEO of the online communications company Honey. She estimates that by 2025, the business world will be dominated by people who don’t use e-mail now.

Which is not to say that e-mail is going away. (Just look at how many we sent today.) The trick is to use it for what it’s best for (those things mentioned above) and find another tool for the things e-mail doesn’t do well.

An example is that new company policy or stylebook or health plan – any of those e-mails we hang on to so we can reference them later. They’re hard to find when we need them, nearly impossible to update and tricky to connect new people with months after they’ve been sent.

Rather than an e-mail, consider a Google doc, for example. There was also a lot of love in the room for the business communication tool Slack. And for those e-mails you can’t ignore (like the one coming from the boss), add those contacts to your favorites list so you’ll never miss their messages.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the tech world brain trust in town this weekend would be looking to technology to solve a problem created by technology.

But the irony may have been lost on the 500-plus in attendance when, the second the presentation was over, everyone whipped out a phone to catch up on e-mail.

Follow the day’s discussion on Twitter using #email666.