Email is a technology that simulates postal mail over a computer network. It has been used by a wide public since the mid 1980s, and in the early 2000s it became ubiquitous in developed countries.

Email is often used inappropriately in community organisations, and there are more suitable alternatives available.

The most appropriate uses

In a community organisation, it is useful to send out emails to a mailing-list to invite people away from their email, towards a more social activity.

Some other situations where email can be appropriate are to deal with outside bureaucracy:

The Problems with Email

This section focusses on email-specific issues, rather than the general problems with written communication. The problems include:

Both overwhelming and disempowering

In 2008, it was common to receive a regular mass of unpleasant spam and circular mail. The lack of reliable receipts gives a disempowering feeling that any of our messages might be lost in the network (incorrectly filtered out or submerged in a swamp of junk mail). This uncertainty affects our comfort with technology in general, because it reduces our sense of efficacy and perception of control.

A poor substitute for local face-to-face communication

Email exchanges that begin with concise expedient messages often expand into prolonged relays of discussion, and become less effective and less rewarding than meeting up for face-to-face conversation. Email encourages quick communication without leaving our chairs.

Is it really possible to communicate our feelings and attitudes consistently through typed messages alone? Usually our body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice play important roles, so much of the subtlety is lost in email communication, and inconsistencies remain.

An extremely demanding way to coordinate activity

When a group of enthusiastic people attempt to organise an activity by email, a barrage of messages ensues. For some, this barrage is difficult to follow or sift through for relevant information – this situation overwhelmingly privileges people with a traditional education, strong literacy, and time on their hands, and particularly disadvantages people with dyslexia. Inclusive communities need technologies that enable us to work collectively to simplify information, and efficiently include a mixture of communication methods, with sound and video.

A crutch for collaboration and project development

Email leads to fractured conversation without a coherent history or continuing context. It is often difficult to search, or for people to join-in part way through. File attachments are often sent around without any version control.

Addictive or distracting

Because we cannot avoid spam, email is always either habit forming or a nuisance. It either encourages the addictive preoccupation of endlessly checking for new mail, or it regularly interrupts our train of thought with notifications. What is worse, email is increasingly available on mobile devices – soon it could distract us even more from face-to-face social activity.

Every time we are interrupted, our memory is briefly disrupted and it takes us a moment to gather our thoughts again. The regular interruption of email notifications can significantly reduce our effectiveness (can anyone find evidence for this? there is definitely a rumour that it reduces our IQ, but that must be nonsense). See also [1].

If we disable email alerts, then checking for email is habit forming, because sometimes we find wonderful messages that reward us, and at other times we are disappointed. These are classic conditions for addiction, and this addictive behaviour is not unique to email (RecentChanges have a similar effect).

Two-a-penny penpals

A more fundamental question is whether we should communicate intimate information, and form lots of emotional relationships that span the globe. When we share personal experiences and emotions, we bond with one-another, and when we spend a lot of time getting in touch with people far away, we can lose touch with those closer to home.

For penpals, pen, paper and physical parcels are probably more appropriate than email.

Recommended alternative communication

This blog contains some information about moving away from email towards other communications: http://www.elsua.net/tag/a-world-without-email/


Email started out as a set of protocols ( POP3, IMAP, SMTP, etc) for sending/receiving of message-document objects. Yet, email also was designed around a paradigm of the office inbox and office outbox. The internet itself has evolved in both it’s protocols, and it’s paradigms. I think it’s important to note that the “pattern” of email communication could be implemented with any networked database, and potentially any send and receive protocol. Using the methods that MattisManzel has been exploring, for instance, we could extend multiple wikis with a few changes and create an actual WikiEmail? system via OddMuse wiki engine (or any WikiEgine?), and RSS feeds (RSS is not a send/receive protocol itself, but since it is available via HTTP, one could approximate sending and receiving between wikis). Or this could be done directly via HTTP.

One might choose the EmailPattern? in wiki communities as a way of sending explicit communication addressed from one community to another. I argue that EmailPattern? (not email itself, but the pattern) is useful when you want to send a message to one or more people in a form that is intended to communicate “I really hope you recipients will read/see this, so I seek to send it addressed to you specifically.” We see this in “direct message” in Twitter and Identi.ca for instance.

Define external redirect: WikiEgine EmailPattern WikiEmail