Personal messages do not need subjects

I remember when I first started using email. I had no one to send email to, so I was delighted whenever I found out someone, usually at college, who had an email address. Being an obsessive evangelist of cool things, I got a lot of my friends to open email accounts also. But only a few of them showed any kind of enthusiasm regarding this weird new thing I was singing about. It was understandable though — I couldn’t expect them to realise the value of a tool for which they had no use. Internet penetration in small-town India back then was practically zero. Even mobile phones were something of a rarity.

But eventually, when my newbie friends did start emailing me, I noticed something that was only going to make sense in retrospect. A lot of their messages to me had no subject line. Before I got used to seeing (no subject) next to a sender’s name, I used to shake my head at how bad people were at learning new things. I mean, how difficult was it to type something relevant into the subject field? The few who did enter a subject wrote dumb things like “Hello!” or “Yayyy!”

It was only much later that I became of the view that it was not their fault. People should not have to learn to use software. Software should be designed to work the way people behave. And entering subjects for messages is something very weird.

Think about it. Back in the days when we wrote notes and letters to each other, did you ever write anything resembling a title or subject? I never did. A message was just a message. Its importance depended on who the sender was. So a note from a pretty girl was more important than a note from the boy wanted to know what was in my tiffin. It didn’t matter what the notes were about. Personal communication was about persons, not topics.

Of course, there is written communication that is topical. I entered, “Request for 2 days leave for health reasons” as a subject into a school application once. That was because a leave application is a document that relies on format. The teacher who goes through leave applications may not have the time to go through all your lies and a one-line subject defining the purpose of your application makes his work easier. This format was and remains common to a lot of workplace communication even today. You are not a person in an office, you are a position. You exist in the service of a greater order and your place in it is defined by what you do in it and for it. In such a scenario, messages can’t help being topical.

Some literary forms also require the presence of a title. A short story, for example, can’t be without a name; the same goes for an article or a book. These are content formats and therefore, need an identifier of one sort or the other. Funny thing is, if you are reading a story without knowing the name of an author, it remains content. But if you choose a story based on your choice of author, it becomes communication — the title doesn’t matter, the person who wrote it is what is important. You don’t pick the story up because the idea is interesting by itself. You pick it up because you want to know what that particular author thinks about the matter. The word Foundation becomes less important than the word ASIMOV.

I have used 2 note-taking applications on the web. One is the popular program Evernote and the other is the aptly-titled Simplenote. I will not compare their feature sets in great detail, but the difference that seems most important to me is their approach towards document names. Evernote makes me type in a title for all notes I create, even though the complete text of all my notes is searchable. Simplenote does not have a title field. It simply picks up the first sentence of my note and uses that as an identifier. Simplenote’s approach strikes me as being particularly intuitive. Why do we need a separate field for a subject or a title? Why can’t our software be smart enough to understand that titles usually go at the start of documents. I mean, this is not something new. Microsoft Word does this. If you don’t give your document a name, it picks up the first few words from the text in the file and makes them the document’s title. Why is it so difficult to implement this in email?

Recently, Shortmail, the brand new email service that limits incoming and outgoing messages to 500 characters, did this very thing. Their compose screen is without a subject field now. It works exactly like Simplenote does — by picking up the first sentence in the message you are writing and turning it into the subject line. If you want a subject, type it in the first line. If not, don’t. On Shortmail the primary identifier for a message is the sender’s name.

Tumblr makes the subject line a thing of the past as well. For post formats like photos and quotes, there is no title field. It is only sensible. The idea of typing Mahatma Gandhi on Non-Violence before a two-line quote from Mahatma Gandhi about non-violence is ridiculous in the extreme. The same goes for posts containing a single photo. Apart from data that belongs in a photo caption, there is really no need for a photo to have a title. This is a blog, not an art gallery. Titles burden a piece of art with context. That’s the last thing a beautiful photograph or painting needs.

The gradual fading away of the subject line happened when communication tools like Twitter emerged. The status message is hardly longer than a title itself. It does not need a title. When short form notes became something of a universal format (Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms that integrated the status message as a prominent element), the title started seeming a burden.

Doing away with the title as an element of content formats is neither doable, nor desirable, but a lot of clutter and cognitive load can be reduced if we at least make it something optional.