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The Curse of Email
March 10, 2011
Email is a curse. At least for many people it feels like a curse. Our inboxes fill before we can blink, we fight a never-ending and always-losing battle for inbox supremacy. The moment we win the battle, the enemy advances with another 2 or 5 or 25 emails. It doesn’t end. It won’t end. Many of us are constantly overwhelmed.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons we feel so overwhelmed by email is that we read it through an old and outdated paradigm. It used to be that mail carried a kind of significance, a kind of weight of importance. After all, I would only go through the trouble of recording thoughts on paper and placing them in an envelope and buying a stamp and putting that letter in the mail if I had something significant to communicate. Mail was important, it was the means by which I told you weighty things. I would never consider sending a letter that said nothing more than “HA!” and included a brief and silly newspaper clipping or, even worse, a notation telling you where you could find that silly clipping on your own.
Because I put effort into writing a letter and sending it to you, you in turn felt that it merited a response. So you would respond by putting your own effort into crafting a letter and you would go through the same process of stamping it and putting it in the mail. I expected no less. This was a well-established and formal procedure that consumed time, effort and resources. It mattered.
That was the paradigm before the digital age. And then email came along.
Email made it so easy, so quick, that receiving a letter lost what had made it special, it lost its significance. Today we receive mail in our inboxes instead of our mailboxes. They take a few seconds in transit instead of a few days or a few weeks. They consume no resources other than the few seconds it takes to type them out. With a click of a button we can send that same email to hundreds of other people, making each person believe that we have sent it only to him. This is the new paradigm: quantity over quality, immediacy over thoughtfulness, amusement over significance.
Most emails contain little of substance; they reflect little effort, little investment. I receive many emails every day that have little to say that is of any real significance. That is the nature of email. An informal medium, it does far better carrying informal content than truly weighty content. The medium has become the message.
I am not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. I don’t mind getting an email that says only “LOL” and points me to a ridiculous news story. What has been freeing to me, though, is understanding this: I do not need to feel the obligations of the old paradigm. I do not need to feel those obligations toward this piece of mail and the person who wrote it. In the old paradigm letters reflected time and attention and were given time and attention in return. In the new paradigm an email that requires no effort demands no effort in return. This is how it has to be.
The only way we will avoid being crushed by the weight of the hundreds or thousands of emails we receive every day is to free ourselves from the need to treat each one like it matters and like it merits a response. The only way we will avoid being emotionally crushed by having other people not respond to our emails is to stop expecting a response. If we can adapt our expectations to fit the realities of this new paradigm, we will all crawl out from under the weight of the curse of email. Email will prove a blessing.