What's wrong with email (the case for topical)

Posted December 14, 2019 by Clark Wilkins

This all begins with a story. I was sending an email about a marketing project for stockd that discussed some aspects of putting a campaign together on LinkedIn. The email got me to thinking about a similar effort to market another project, servicd, so I followed up with a second email — similar contact, same recipients, just 10 minutes apart.

Then it hit me. There's a good chance that the recipients of these very similar emails are going to either confuse them in the reply chain, or think they're duplicates and answer only one. This is not an efficient and focused way to communicate, and I need to do something about it. That “something” is topical.


Traditional email “threads” start with the initlal message, followed by a chain of replies which usually include the entire content of the email thread up to that point. After a few iterations, your reply is a very small fraction of the content you send, and the initial message may now be repeating a dozen or more times in the body text (the reply to a reply ... to a reply). Is it really necessary that we must quote the entire prior thread as reference material for what we're saying right now?

I'm talking about this

A second problem arises from the common failure to specify what we're replying to/about in our replies. The only way to do this in an email is a selective copy of the prior comment, or an explicit statement of the reply target. Sure, it's possible, but no, I don't think it's very common for us to take the time to clarify — we're too busy.

bring me up to speed

What happens if you've traded 10-20 emails spanning different threads on a subject, and you need to get a colleague involved. Are you sure you're going to take the time to find all the emails, forward them to your colleague, explain the context of the emails and which parts are relevant? What if you can't forward some of them because part of the content are not to be disclosed for one reason or another?


topical handles all of these issues by design. The topic is started by an “owner” who decides the topic title and who will be involved in the discussion. All posts are “atomic” — you can quote something said earlier in the thread, but all you really need to do is click +respond on that comment and your reply is marked to connect back to it. Therefore, we've already solved the first two problems mentioned above. We have a reply which is (usually) 100% new content and not re-quoting, and we can refer to prior material as needed.

Now, we've now created a functional discussion/narrative with no extraneous text about other things mixed in and a built in chronology of comments and responses. It becomes possible to invite a new participant to the discussion, and have a reasonable expectation that they can read the entries to date and have at least a basic understanding of what's going on here. That's a solution for problem #3.

That, in essence, is why we built topical, and why we use it every day to focus on specific issues with specific people. It's a universal tool for private, structured discussions between any arbitrary set of individuals. The discussions can be short-term and deleted as soon as they're done, or archived for future reference. You can talk about anything that doesn't violate our terms of service (basically illegal content) in private, extensible, and searchable conversations. This will make your life better which is reason enough to do it. Enjoy.

next: The magic eraser