I talk a lot about email on this blog because I live in email. I spend hours a day with it. I eat email. I breathe email. That might explain all the rasping and malnutrition. Anyhow *cough*, in just the last four years I’ve sent and read what would probably be a lifetime of email to a “normal” person. And of course I’ve found a lot of problems with email because I’ve used it a lot, so I want to write about some of those, and discuss what I think needs to be done, but never will. Because apparently jadedness is another side-effect of the emailing.
The thing that amazes me is that email is a relatively old technology (it’s about 40 years old if you count the earliest versions, and has had “mainstream” use for over a decade), but it hasn’t improved much in that time. Sure, the first 30 years probably saw a lot of change, but in the last 10, we haven’t seen many improvements. The good things are all still there, but the bad things haven’t gone away.
So I’d like to publicly put out a call for Email 2.0. If you agree with me, make a comment and send your friends over here. I’m sure these ideas have been discussed before, but I don’t see any signs of forward progress in the email field. Things being done with modern email, like HTML mail for instance, are really just hacks to the old infrastructure depending on how you think of them.
So what would Email 2.0 look like? Email 2.0 would be defined by the problems it purports to solve. I think these are the five problems that should be solved with Email 2.0:
You can’t edit emails after you’ve sent them. How many times have you sent something only to realize a minute or two later that you made a crucial typo that changes the entire meaning of your message? (Saying “now” instead of “not” is a classic. Saying “Hey, check out this website!” and then forgetting to send the link is another one.) I’ve seen this hundreds of times. What invariably follows is that the sender must send another email, a “chaser” if you will, that says “Oh, sorry, here’s what I meant.” Or the sender never notices the problem, and the recipients respond to the typo and not the real meaning, thus requiring another go-round of email just to get everything right. It’s a waste of time. I should be able to correct it so that anyone who reads the email after I make my correction will never see the original mistake.
You can’t retract emails that were accidentally sent. I think AOL or someone had this feature awhile back. It seems everyone has stepped down to the more ubiquitous and less-powerful Internet standard email since then. Obviously, this would be useful for the same reasons as the reason above. It’s also a great fix for “angry emailing” and “drunk emailing”, both of which can be quite dangerous.
You can’t add people onto emails after you’ve sent them in such a way that a reply to the original will include the person you added later. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen follow-up emails to a large group that simply say “CCing Bob and Pete,” or something. I didn’t need to know you CCed Bob and Pete. Bob and Pete did. Maybe if I care about who was added, when, and by whom, I could go into the headers of the email and look, but that’s all the further it should go. People should be able to jump into email discussions anytime someone already on that thread wants them to without having to alert the entire group to their arrival with even more email. Unless the next problem is fixed too.
You can’t easily, permanently lock an email to a specific group of people. Sometimes emails are only meant for certain eyes. It’s easy for people to forget a volatile comment that was made further back in a thread and include people on that thread that were never supposed to see that original comment. Feelings get hurt. Folks get upset. Hilarity ensues. It should be simple to just click a button that says “No one can add people to this thread.” There are ways around it (copy/paste), but it would be a powerful reminder to the recipients to be careful about who the message goes to. True, it’s possible to send encrypted email, but generally I’ve found it somewhat confusing and hard to set up. Not everyone is going to go through the necessary steps to be able to do that. This solution needs to be more universal.
You can’t see who has or hasn’t read your email. This is another feature that I know has existed in the past and has all but gone extinct with the adoption of standards, which in this case were less powerful. This isn’t a must-have, but it’d sure be useful sometimes.
What features would you like to see added to email?