Nope – a quick comment on “Can we turn off email?” by Charles Arthur

When I read “Can we turn off email?” by Charles Arthur today I thought it mixes privacy and ephemerality up a bit but I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it. Here are a few quick thoughts:

Matter of privacy: If any msg gets taken out of its original context (time, recipients) it is a breach of privacy – no matter which tool we used. Can happen with email as well as with messaging apps, even Snapchat (screenshots). That’s why I wouldn’t see it as argument against email.

Matter of ephemerality: Messaging apps or platforms like Slack are good for conversation that is closer to oral culture. That is not archived. Or: that makes the archiving invisible, like lots of digital communication tools and social media do.

Email in work situation still totally makes sense for conversations that you need to be able to look up again, to archive. I wouldn’t want to miss it in my job.

But email sucks whenever a conversation is closer to chatting, to oral culture, to “social”. Then picking a subject line and a recipient is inconvenient and archiving doesn’t make sense. The mere awareness of it being archived can take the flow and openness out of such conversations.

Typing s.th. into a room/group on Slack/WhatsApp/Telegram is so much better for this. Not just because of the ephemeral feel but also bc of what Daniel Miller called “scalable sociality” a few days ago.

If we imagine two parameters – one consisting of the scale from private to public and the other from the smallest group of two up to the biggest group of public broadcast – then as new platforms are continually being invented they encourage the filling of niches and gaps along these two scales. As a result, we can now have greater choice over the degree of privacy or size of group we may wish to communicate with or interact with. This is what we mean by scalable sociality.

Today’s tools are still about checking out the possibilities in how to handle this best and it’s far too soon to tell what will stay and what won’t.

I think email isn’t over but there are better tools for any kind of conversation that doesn’t need to be archived. What we definitely need are more choices in archiving or not. That should be a just as lively area as all the possibilities of organising whom we adress and how public or private we want a coversation to be = possibilities of scaling sociality.

If it was about optimising our communication needs, more options for self-destructing, ephemeral messaging would seem far more “natural” for many platforms than all their (invisible) archives. What I want: Ephemerality as the default setting with an extra “archive this!” switch that I can turn on like a red “this is going on record!” signal. BTW this is what I find crucial about only using so-called “free” communication tools: those are dependend on archives of our data when they are financed by advertising, and that clashes with user interests.

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