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What Does Gmail's Upgrade Mean for the Evolution of Communication?

As it is for plenty of twenty-something working stiffs, Gmail is the backbone of my day. Whether I’m group gossiping chatting, working in a shared excel chart, or reading an all caps email from my Dad, I’m using Gmail. Since signing up over five years ago, I’ve been a loyal user, readily adopting new features—even though it took me a solid month to discover my Google Docs were now Google Drive.

It was no surprise that when composing an email a couple nights ago, things looked a little different. New emails are now opened just like a Gchat window, but larger. The purpose is to allow users the ability to easily compose an email while accessing old emails for reference, working with multiple compositions at once, and reading incoming messages. Replying to an email thread looks cleaner, and more closely resembles a chat.

I can get down with this new streamlined communication functionality.

What’s rubbing me the wrong way is how Google positions the interface modification as a time saver:

"How many times have you been writing an email and had to reference something in another message?” Google said. “Saving a draft, opening the old email, and then reopening your draft wastes valuable minutes."

I’ll be honest; I don’t think I’ve lost much of life to email drafts. Google’s statement is just a reminder that we’re all in such a damn hurry that even sending an email message is a burden. Surely you can only boil the act of communicating down so far.

These days, I hardly make a phone call and the most important information is received in an email, text, or via social networks. College admission decisions, birth announcements, job offers, date requests, professions of love, and wedding engagements are all mingled in with the mundane and served up in limited status updates or a sepia filtered photo. Many agree that it’s just more efficient to share information this way, but is something lost here?

I’m a tech geek, but still wonder if email is the last of the Mohicans when it comes to long-form written communication—long the foundation of history. Email replaced handwritten letters, and now social media is facilitating the demise of email. There's a massive amount of content to be seen and messages to receive on a daily basis alone—we feel burdened when there’s more than a paragraph of text. Some camps are strong advocates for abolishing email all together, arguing that it’s cumbersome and ineffective. I see their point, especially when pertinent messages drown in a flood of unwanted spam and unnecessarily notifications.

But it’s not just email. Forbes and the Washington Post seem to push out shorter articles by the day. News is reduced to the major points, maybe even a slide show or infographic to make it easier. It feels like the story has been removed from all the news stories, because there just isn’t enough time to tell them.

When Google makes incremental changes in reducing the friction of sending messages, I completely understand. Objectively the new update does make email communication more fluid and allows for an increase in volume. As Google said, the changes will save you time, allowing more communication bandwidth, though I still maintain that closing and reopening a draft hasn't ruined lives.

In the age of instant gratification and content overload, we may not want to deal with the particulars now, but I wonder about the future. How will historians analyze the past using condensed correspondence, breaking news in 500 words or less, and billions of 140 character snippets?

Image (cc) flickr user Oneras

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