The tools I use to read email affect how I read it (more than I thought)

October 8, 2023

Up until recently, I read most of my email with exmh, a graphical X frontend on (N)MH, and some of it with command line NMH tools. I've used exmh at work for a long time, and then at home from early 2020 onward (when I started working from home a lot). Recent changes in my home Internet made using exmh from home less pleasant, so I started trying out the only other current (N)MH frontend that I know of, MH-E in GNU Emacs. Initially this was only from home, but then I started using it at work as well, partly with the excuse of building up familiarity with it faster (and sanding off a whole assortment of rough edges faster).

Since both exmh and MH-E are frontends on the same core of NMH, I didn't expect my mail reading to be much changed by using MH-E at home, although I did expect to miss several features exmh has that MH-E doesn't. To my surprise, things didn't work out like that at all. One of the most visible signs of the shift to me is that I'm back to reading technical mailing lists, after mostly stopping earlier. Another sign of the shift is that I dove into several historical 'dumping ground' folders and cleaned them out, and my inbox is probably more under control than before (I don't keep my inbox empty).

Although I can't be completely sure, I feel that I can put my finger on a few MH-E features that have enabled this. One is that MH-E makes it easy for me to get a large scale summary of a folder (including my inbox). Normal mail clients, including exmh, more or less statically divide space between a 'message list' section and a section for the message you're reading. MH-E has this distinction too, but because everything is Emacs buffers it's natural to expand the message list to take up all of the space when you're not looking at a message, and then if you look at a message it goes back to the split.

A second feature is MH-E's support for a threaded message list display. MH-E's threading is fast to turn on and off, and it makes it easy to blast through a thread all at once (or kill it, in some cases). Being able to see a thread in my inbox all at once encourages me to delete all of it at once if the thread is now closed and I don't need to keep track of it any more, and the thread display makes these blocks of discussions much more obvious in the first place. Threads also make it easier to read technical mailing lists (and to rapidly skip things I don't really care about).

(One reason to be slightly dubious that these features are all of the story is the well known effect where if you start paying attention to something, you tend to do it more and better for a while. There's also the 'Ikea effect', where you have more affection for things that you've put together yourself. I've been doing a lot of putting together of my MH-E Emacs setup.)

There are definitely things from exmh that I still miss and that I feel make me less productive in some ways in MH-E. But it's clear that using MH-E has changed my mail reading behavior in positive ways too, and far more than I expected. So this is yet another illustration that the specifics of tools can matter more than I expected, and small elements can have outsized effects (as can elements I discount the importance of, like a thread display of mail).

Written on 08 October 2023.
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Last modified: Sun Oct 8 23:28:08 2023
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