Postcards can be one of the most obvious examples of Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, “the medium is the message.” No matter what you write on one, a postcard says to someone: hey i was in the world and i was thinking about you.
I am an inveterate postcard sender. Despite the immediacy of today’s communication options, nothing conveys a message like a postcard. Another aspect that I find McLuhanesque is the difference between when you send the postcard and when the person receives it. The card is independent of both the issuer and the receiver; third parties take it to their lot.
I also love email, which I’ve always thought of as the digital equivalent of a postcard.
Although e-mail does not have the physical limitations of a postcard (although e-mail is equally “open” in the sense that anyone with snooping skills can read one in transit), there is a time change between sending and receiving in both formats. And I would argue that the best emails follow the same format as a postcard: simple, focused messages.
Not everyone likes email, of course, but I’m convinced that much of our distaste for email comes from the software we use to interact with it. That is, email clients.
The technology behind email is one of the longest-lasting and most widely used protocol sets 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’re really going to learn to love email again, what we need first are better email clients.
I’m not talking about web-based email (like Gmail), where you visit a URL and see your cloud-based inbox in your browser window. I’m talking about a stand-alone email client that downloads your mail from a mail server and lets you read and reply from your desktop, either in a dedicated app or in an email reader built into another app , such as a web browser. A standalone email client gives you the same advantages that all native apps have over their web-based counterparts: speed, grace, and offline accessibility. This kind of thing used to be common. The Opera web browser had a built-in email client, and Mozilla (makers of Firefox) supported the standalone Thunderbird client. But over the past 10 to 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 never found web-based email appealing. I tried Gmail briefly and found a step back. Slow to load, awkward to use, and insisting on trying to sort and organize my inbox by adding tags and shoving things into separate tabs. This is not what I want and so I have always relied on email clients to search, display and send my email.
For reference, here’s the historical timeline of my relationship with mail 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.