The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

E-mail subject lines are a stupid waste of your time

(Gmail/The Washington Post)
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There is a reason this article has a title. This article has a title because it helps distill the point of the 800 words to follow, allowing you to know, when that title shows up in Twitter or on Facebook or wherever, what hot, fresh Washington Post content is coming your way. Oh, this is a thing about how e-mail subject lines are stupid, you thought. Let’s see what the argument is.

The argument is this: E-mails, unlike this article, don’t need a title.

Well, more fully: Emails don’t need subject lines because: 1) nearly every way you check your e-mail previews the full content anyway and 1b) threads them, 2) perhaps 98 percent of the time, you can guess what the e-mail is about based on the sender, 3) subject lines are wrong, and 4) the 0.2 seconds you spent on a title are better spent petting your dog.

Content previews. I have at my immediate disposal three tools for staying up-to-date on my e-mail: My phone, my computer’s e-mail application, and my work email in a browser window. Each tells me what the message says even before I open it. Even the notification pop-up on my phone throws a line or two into its preview. The subject line almost never actually adds new information.

An example from a spam e-mail I just received as I was typing this.

Content threads. Now the corollary. When e-mail was first created, it’s easy to see why subject lines were useful. “Where was that e-mail where Charlie sent me the sales numbers,” some business guy with a boring job said in 1998. He’d skim the subject lines and there it is. Now, your e-mail client lumps all of the back-and-forth e-mails about your sales numbers together. No skimming needed. Or, if worse comes to worse, you can search. Zero people actually scroll through their e-mails to find something, they just type into the search bar. And that’s more useful, because if that idiot Charlie forgot to mention sales numbers in the subject, you’ll find it anyway. (More on this later.)

You usually know what e-mails are about anyway. A large portion of the e-mail we send and receive could instead be accomplished by using Yo. You remember Yo, the app that was The Talk of the Internet World™ for a few weeks earlier this year. Yo did one thing: It got someone else’s attention for you. That is what e-mail does. “Got it.” “OK.” “See you then.” Those are e-mails that you have received today, or will receive imminently. The “RE: Tucker’s going-away party” or “Can we meet at 12pm?” that floats above it isn’t useful.

(An analogy, from another tech system that has devolved into Yo. No one listens to voicemail because you generally know why the person is calling. Voicemail systems used to sometimes preface incoming messages with a robotic “MESSAGE FROM TWO-ZERO-THREE-THREE-FOUR…” etc. This was not helpful for 100 reasons that aren’t worth breaking out. But this is what a subject line does. “THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE IS ABOUT GOING TO A BAR AT 5 PM.” Happily, it doesn’t hold you hostage while it chatters it out, but it’s no less useless.)

What’s more, e-mail send-response times are nearing instant-message levels. I e-mail you a question; you reply instantly. I know what you’re e-mailing about. I remember 14 seconds ago. Even if you open an e-mail in the morning, most of us have the short-term memory skills to not have to be reminded what we’d reached out about. That’s why this article needs a title; a Yo from the Washington Post probably wouldn’t tell you much.

Subject lines are usually not actually about the subject. In the ideal world of the inventors of email, each topic would get a discrete email. SUBJECT: Sales numbers. SUBJECT: Cake in Jim’s office. SUBJECT: Forward this e-mail to 15 people or you will get Ebola. (I assume it is understandable why I associate e-mail so strongly with doing work and getting terrible diseases and spam.)

Then one person replies and the topic of the chain changes instantaneously. The subject line, “Sales numbers,” no longer serves as a good encapsulation of the 17-e-mail exploration of the nuances of Serial. And it therefore is useless.

You have better things to do. People spend varying amounts of time writing e-mail subject lines, but anything greater than zero-point-zero seconds is time poorly spent. If you send 40 e-mails a day and spend 0.25 seconds adding a subject to each one, you will have spent … (gets out calculator) … two-thirds of your life writing e-mail subject lines. Maybe you don’t value your life that much, but we here at the Washington Post do.

Which, come to think of it makes a better headline: “The Washington Post values your life.” But an e-mail message with a similar subject — “Do you value your life?” — probably wouldn’t land. So let’s just skip them, forever.