During the first dotcom bubble, @JWZ coined Zawinski's Law: "Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can." It's all three kinds of funny: funny ha-ha, funny strange, and funny serious.

It's the software equivalent of carcinization, the tendency of every animal to eventually evolve into a crab. Crab's aren't the best animal, but they're the most versatile.


Today in @XKCD, Randall Munroe updates Zawinski's Law with a strip called "Unread," in the way that mounting unread message counts eventually turn every instant messaging platform into email.


Switching from email to instant messaging can feel hugely liberating. There's the first-order effect, that most of the people whose email is a chore - mass-forwarders, bulk-CCers, favor beggers and passive-aggressive schmendricks - don't know how to reach you.

Instead, your initial correspondents on a new service are apt to be close friends you give your new address to, along with a smattering of interesting strangers of the sort you've been unable to engage with thanks to the time-vampires who'd colonized your email inbox.

That giddy moment quickly fades though, because you have stuff to do, and to do stuff, you have to engage with people. And then they'll engage with you. And you'll want to answer them, but sometimes you'll need to get other people in on the discussion to move things forward.

You'll get messages on the go - during the honeymoon period, you can even turn on notifications again! - and then need to come back to them later (because you're on the go, and the messages are important).

Then, one of two things happens: either you fall back to email or the IM tool gets CC, BCC, mark unread, search and bulk messaging.

Except that it's shitty email. It's email that's locked inside a social media company's walled garden, with only one client, not federated.

This is why I do everything important by email. Not because I like email. I hate email. I, too, have experienced the giddy new relationship energy that comes from switching to an IM-based service!

But I've also lived through the disastrous consequences of zawinskiian carcination enough times that I have learned my lesson. Much as I hate email, I can't quit it.


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