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An epic ode to email
November 30, 2010 - 10:15pm

Okay, so maybe this won't be that epic, or an ode for that matter, but I've been thinking about email a lot lately. Email often becomes the villain when we talk about communication tools. Email is portrayed as something that needs to "die." Well, my view is that email is a juggernaut. Email is not going anywhere.

My first email account was through Hotmail. That's right, Hotmail. In 1996, email was the coolest thing that I had encountered on the web. I started using my full name as my handle for my Hotmail account. A trend that I have continued since I created that account. I don't have enough time to write about how a certain company [cough-Microsoft-cough] took my beloved Hotmail and turned it into something unholy, unruly, and unusable. But I digress. Over the years, I have had numerous email accounts through a variety of sources. I remember when Gmail became available. I was so excited for an invitation. That's right, I was excited about an email service. I've been using Gmail as my primary email service since that glorious day in Chicago when I received an invitation to join the Gmail beta. It took a friend of a friend with connections in New York City to make it happen. Email was and still is that important to me.

Facebook recently held a webcast to announce the upcoming release of Facebook Messages. Billed as the next great way to communicate online, Facebook Messages incorporates email into the preeminent social network's gigantic walled garden. While it is far too early to know whether or not Facebook Messages will be successful, the fact is that Zuckerberg and company are bringing a "new" way to do email to the 500 million users of Facebook. Email cannot "die" when companies like Facebook and Google are so invested in it. Ironically, I was listening to a representative from Google at a recent conference who said that "email is dead." I think that the narrative of email being dead is more about companies controlling the delivery systems / platforms that email exists upon. Google and Facebook are interested in making money off of email via advertising. They seem to want the current version of email to disappear so that a newer, more ad-friendly alternative can fill our need for email.

When Google Wave first came out, I was among the many techies who thought that Wave had the potential to be ground-breaking. Wave was described as what email would be like if it was created today. Well, Wave failed due to a myriad of issues and I think it was largely due to the fact that email isn't broken. That's right, email is not broken. It works perfectly. It's the users of email who need to learn how to use it better. Do I have your attention? How many people do you know who have hundreds if not thousands of messages in their inboxes? It's no wonder that people are quick to drink the email is dead rhetoric. Instead of looking at how they can become more efficient and agile with email, people are far too quick to jump to the next tech tool.

Student affairs professionals frequently discuss the issue of how email is not working as a communication tool to connect with students. I would posit that students are overwhelmed with email because they have a totally different schedule than most student affairs practitioners. Think about how much desk time an SA pro has compared to a student who is in class, working on campus, meeting with professors, working on group projects and studying in the library. When I worked as an academic advisor, I held time on my schedule in the morning to read/respond to emails. I would check my Outlook for emails throughout the day. Email was something that I managed as part of my workday. I could receive 60 emails per day and easily have enough time to keep my inbox at manageable levels. A student might only check their email once or twice per day. That creates a scenario where email becomes a logjam. It piles up and important messages are missed. When do we teach our students how to manage their email? We don't because frankly, we have an all-too real misperception that students are technology wizards. They are not. Students are no better at managing their email/inboxes than most student affairs professionals. If we do not recognize this reality, then we will never get to a place where email is not overwhelming, ignored and misunderstood.

Email is not dead nor is it going away. We need to work on ways that we can manage our email. Tom Krieglstein recently posted a terrific set of tips for managing email. Organization, focus and technique are important elements to using email. One of the features that I value with Gmail is that I never have to delete a message. I can archive it and search for it later. Search is probably the number one technique that I use to manage my email. I archive my emails (or when I'm using Outlook, place them in folders) and rely on search as opposed to scrolling through an endless sea of messages. For Outlook users, I would highly recommend that you check out Xobni. It's a wonderful search plugin that will revolutionize the way that you access your email messages via a robust search-based plugin.

We all have seen job descriptions that include a working knowledge of MS Outlook as part of the position qualifications. Do we really assess that particular facet of someone's skillset? Anyone can say that they know how to "do" email, but how do we really know? Email is a wonderful communication tool that is so ubiquitous and so misunderstood. Long live email.

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