Postcards can be one of the most obvious examples of Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim, “the medium is the message”. Regardless of what you write on it, a postcard says to someone, hey, i was out and about traveling the world, and i was thinking about you.
I am an inveterate sender of postcards. For all the immediacy of today’s communication options, nothing quite conveys a message like a postcard does. Another aspect that I find McLuhanesque is the gap between when you send the postcard and when the person receives it. The card is independent of sender and recipient; third parties bring it to its fate.
I also love email, which I’ve always considered the digital equivalent of a postcard.
Although email does not have the physical limitations of a postcard (although email is also “open” in the sense that anyone with espionage skills can read one in transit), there is a time lag between sending and receiving in both formats. And I would say that the best emails follow the same format as a postcard: simple, targeted messages.
Not everyone loves email, of course, but I’m sure a lot of the aversion we have to email stems from the software we use to interact with it. In other words, email clients.
The technology behind email is one of the most enduring and widely used sets of protocols on the Internet. But while email technology, like the postcard, has stood the test of time, email clients have not. They have been corrupted, neglected and relegated to the back of the class. If we really want to learn to love email again, we first need better email clients.
I’m not talking about webmail (like Gmail), where you visit a URL and see your cloud-based inbox in the browser window. I’m talking about a standalone mail client that downloads your mail from a mail server and lets you read and reply from your desktop, either in a dedicated application or in a built-in mail reader. another application, such as a web browser. A standalone email client gives you the same benefits that all native apps have over their web-based counterparts: speed, grace, and offline accessibility. This sort of thing was common. The Opera web browser had a built-in email client, and Mozilla (maker of Firefox) supported the standalone Thunderbird client. But over the past 10 or 15 years, there has been a shift to web-based email, led primarily by Gmail. This move caused most browsers to abandon their email clients and even destroyed the market for some standalone email clients.
But many of us have never found web-based email appealing. I briefly tried Gmail and found it a step backwards. Slow to load, difficult to use, and insistent on trying to sort and organize my inbox for me by adding labels and moving things into separate tabs. That’s not what I want, so I’ve always relied on email clients to retrieve, view, and send my emails.
For reference, here is the historical timeline of my relationship with email client software: first there was Mutt, then Pine, then Eudora, then Mailsmith, then Opera, then Thunderbird. Now I use a combination of Mutt and Vivaldi Mail.