“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
– Sir Winston Churchill
Whenever I complain about email I am reminded of that quote from the eminently quotable Sir Winston Churchill. Think about it for a second, what would you do without email? The power of email lies in it’s complete pervasiveness and total interoperability, which is far more than anything one could say about any other communication tool except the telephone.
Having said that, the inbox is certainly not without faults. I don’t think anyone would ever say that they don’t get enough email or that it’s even close to be efficient for high volumes. Products have been promised for this but I doubt it’s anything that is solvable within the current email model. Sam Lawrence notices that a lot of social software seems destined for the same problems that plague email, overload:
Even the people who develop email software like Microsoft, Google and IBM know that the inbox sucks. We don’t need a new email inbox we need something completely new. The problem is that Social Software seems to headed into the same problems as email and we certainly don’t need another dump zone.
It’s hard to disagree with Sam but at the same time to throw the “baby out with the bath water” would be equally hazardous. Part of the solution will be found in our human ability to adapt and filter, which at the end of the day outstrips any software by light years, and the other part will be enhancing the venerable inbox with social graph features the serve to collapse down all the networks we participate in.
FriendFeed has done this to some degree and while it is not email it is also not a stretch to consider that email is just another lifestream that can get pumped into FriendFeed based on predetermined qualifiers. Companies like Xobni are working on unlocking the social graph that is represented in everyone’s inbox, something that a great many of us are anxious to do.
Bringing application function to the lowly email is something else that is really interesting. I’m tempted to say this would be like the old Firedrop stuff or even Zimbra’s email widgets, but I think it’s something different, maybe adding semantic tags and/or microformats with handler apps to email messages. I saw the potential for this when I upgraded to Leopard and saw how email, ical, and address book could be integrated at the message level by simply interpreting that “next wednesday” meant a date that was a week from this wednesday in ical, or that a phone number in a message could be added to the address book with a simple drop down. It’s startling how much you come to rely on this functionality when you have it.
So while Sam isn’t wrong in suggesting that the inbox paradigm is wrong for social software, I think the answer is found in enhancing the social features in email and building interoperability to non-email systems. Inboxes are here to stay, let’s figure out how to get the most of them, I say.