May 4, 2015

#22 BONUS: The Man Who Refused To Email

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

A special bonus Email Debt Forgiveness Day themed episide! First, PJ talks to Buzzfeed San Francisco Bureau chief Mat Honan about his decision to abandon personal email entirely, and his agonizing fear that it makes him seem like a douche. Then we listen to some of the voicemails people left us on our Email Debt Forgiveness Day hotline. Thanks for participating in the inaugural email debt forgiveness day! We can't wait until next year. 

The Facts
Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music is by Build Buildings. 

Additional Reading

A great article about Email Debt Forgiveness Day by Reeves Weideman


PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, a show about the internet. And this is our first bonus episode.

PJ: In our month where we were very obsessed with the idea of Email Debt Forgiveness Day, we found some really interesting stuff, but we were worried about giving people too much Email Debt Forgiveness Day, so we just took the best stuff and split it off into this bonus episode. Um, and I have to say, hands-down the coolest part about doing this was that we left a voicemail where people could leave message about emails that they had been unable to send, or were trying to send, and um ... and listening to them was just such a privilege.

ALEX GOLDMAN: You listened to all of them?

PJ: I really did.

ALEX: Wow, I'm impressed.

PJ: It was really cool. It was like, um --

ALEX: Did it make it, did it just make you feel glad that you aren't alone?

PJ: It, honestly, it made me feel as alone as anything in recent history that I can remember. Like, it felt like ... it just felt like, oh, it's hard for everyone to be a human being. Everybody runs into stuff where they're just like, I don't know. In the second half of the show, we're using the great rules of radio to tell you about a thing that you're not about to hear, we're going to play some of those emails later. Um, but ... there was this was one other interview that I did, and like, I was so inspired by it, but it felt like a thing to put out after Email Debt Forgiveness Day.

ALEX: Do you think you should say who it's with and what it's about?

PJ: I think that's a great idea. Um, so it's with Matt Honan, Buzzfeed's San Francisco Bureau Chief. He's a great tech writer, but, the reason we're talking to him is because of this one, crazy thing that he has decided to do. Matt Honan has stopped using email to talk to his friends and family. He still has a work account, but otherwise he has completely sworn off email. Which means he's either a completely insane person, or, possibly, the first person to do something that eventually, hopefully, all of us are going to do.

Matt said they were two things that led him to do this. One is that, in the moment that we're living in now, there are a ton of great alternatives to sending an email. You can text somebody --

MATT HONAN: You can, hit me on Facebook Messenger, you can send me something on Twitter. You can hit me on g-chat. You can do all these different things to get in touch with me. Uh, and you don't necessarily need to use ... email.

PJ: And on top of that, he's had the same personal email address for years, and he's a reporter, so he emails a lot of people for work, and so his email box is just ... a mess.

MATT HONAN: You know, over the past decade, it's become just a landmine, or a landmine-filled wasteland of special offers, and ... you know, pitches from, from publicists, and ... you know, I've signed up for some restaurants mailing list, and they got bought by some other restaurant, and they got bought by somebody else, and all of the sudden I'm on 37 email lists that I never meant to be on. And I just wanted to get away from that. And I realized that the best way to do that was just to, was just to like, set it on fire, and turn around and run.

PJ: And how has it been so far?

MATT: It's been awesome! It's been great! (laughing) Like, I love it! I mean basically all it's done, like ... so ... so, I have a confession, which is I still check the box right?

PJ: Ohhhhhh.

MATT: But ... um ... I don't do it everyday. And I don't feel the need to do it everyday. Basically that, that autoresponse goes out and it accomplishes like, letting my friends know that I'm not going to see their message, probably, or that if I, you know, or if I do see it I'm not going to see it in sort of a timely fashion.

PJ: Matt writes about technology, and there's been this recent trend in tech where people are trying to invent new email programs that solve the problem that he is running away from.

MATT: You know if you think about all of the email startups ... over the past couple of years, Mailbox and Boxer and like, there was the one from AOL, even, there's all kinds of things that are designed to help people triage their email. Clearly there's an email problem. I mean Google is trying to help you triage your email, even, you know, with, with Inbox. And um, Google is saying, okay, we recognize that our own email system that we're trying to get you to use is so broken that we need this whole other, app to help you organize the email in your app. Then like, like, stuff's messed up. And, And uh, and it has to go in another direction.

PJ: Of course one of the big obstacles facing anybody that would like to stop using personal email is us. We tend to be judgemental and weird about people's' technology choices. And the whole time I was talking to Matt, I could sort of feel his worry about that.

There was this subtext in there like, is this actually an okay choice for him to be making. Is not using email going to seem pretentious?

MATT: Is it really douchey?

PJ: I don't think so. This is the thing I can't figure out. I don't think it is. When we started talking about having problems with email, because we were doing this holiday where the conceit is that you can email somebody and you're allowed to just pretend that it was an immediate response. It's to let people off the hook. And there were a couple of people who essentially said, "You're a douche." Um, because what they read into it, I think, is, other people might be able to handle all of their email, but when you're, you know, a D-list podcast host such as myself, the demands on my time are just ... too much. (laughing)

MATT: (laughing) I guess the big, do you, do you remember, there was, there was a story ... I think it was Nick Dalton wrote, about, not using voicemail anymore. And, the response to it -- I remember the response more than I remember the actual story. I remember the response was just like, "How dare you!? You entitled prick. How dare you not check your voicemail?" You know? And uh, like, I guess that's sort of what I'm afraid of, to like, make it -- and I think that's actually why I haven't written about me not using personal emails. I'm afraid, afraid that I'll get some of that response.

PJ: Alright, so that is Buzzfeed's Matt Honan. He is a formerly in-the-closet, now slightly out-of-the-closet email opt-outer. He feels scared. I felt so inspired by talking to him.

ALEX: I bet it, in the same way that those voicemails made you not feel alone, I bet it felt vindicating to find someone who was like, I've given up on the entire premise of email.

PJ: It was like somebody being like "I've decided not to age anymore. That's not for me. I'm just not going to age." He's grappling with this problem, he's like, eh, you just opt out.

ALEX: Through sheer willpower, he's managed to, uh, stopped the tide or something.

PJ: Yeah! He, he's, he's stood on the beach, in front of the ocean, and he was like, eh, I'm not doing waves anymore.

ALEX: And the waves just ceased.

PJ: The waves ceased.

PJ: Okay, so ... after a quick break, we hear from you guys, and the voicemails that you left from us. Stick around.

PJ: Welcome back to the show! So a month ago, we asked listeners to leave us voicemail messages about emails they had hard time sending for whatever reason. And here are some of those messages.

JUNIPER: My name's Juniper. I live in Seattle. And, two years ago, I came out as trans to my friends, and then to my job, and then to parts of my family, but, uh, I still haven't told my conservative Russian grandparents. Uh, I love them, and I think they're, they're generally great people, but they don't have the best track record for, controversial issues, let's say. And, I haven't responded to any of their calls, the text messages, or emails for, like, two years. And I really need to get back to them and tell them that this is who I am, and my life is different, and that the person that they knew for their whole life is ... mm, somebody different now. Yeah, so April 30th, I'm going to try to send out that email. Thanks. Bye.

FEMALE VOICE: Two months ago, I left this note in a stranger's mailbox, inquiring about their ... um, 13-foot fiberglass camper. And I, um ... wrote this note that said, "Hi! I really love your camper! I would just really love ... to own it maybe. Um, if you are thinking about selling it, let me know. Here's my email. Hope you have a great day.”

Um, and then, I get an email from this sweetheart woman named Karen, and um, basically the gist of it was it was a, uh, "Sorry, no I'm not selling it," but she goes onto tell me the story about how her husband just died, that she uses it to go on these fly fishing camping adventures with this organization called Fly Sisters? I don't know, basically, um, retired women who go on flyfishing adventures, and she invited me to come with her on the trip, and I've been wanting to respond to Karen because, I, it's been so long, and I'm sure she, put all of her heart and soul into the email that she wrote me, and I haven't responded because I've been a jerk.

MALE VOICE: Hey Reply All guys, I actually woke up today and had an email from the person who I've been planning on emailing for Email Debt Forgiveness Day, so I don't know if that qualifies as an Email Debt Forgiveness Day miracle, but it meant that I didn't have to be awkward when I sent that email today. Uh, so it was great!

DOUG: About four months ago, I endured a pretty messy break-up with my long-time girlfriend.

PJ: It's a little bit hard to hear the phone tape here, so I'm just breaking in to paraphrase a little bit. Doug has this bad break-up with his girlfriend Sarah, and then Sarah's mom, who Doug had always been close to, sends him a package in the mail.

DOUG: It's a pretty abnormally shaped package, tall as the kitchen table, but ... maybe as wide as a basketball.

PJ: And when he opens it up, it's a yoga mat.

DOUG: No, I've never done yoga, but, Sarah's mom is a bit of yoga nut. She travelled to India, did the whole thing.

PJ: He hadn't talked to Sarah's mom since the break-up, and he doesn't even know if Sarah's told her mom that they've split. So they yoga mat could either be something she'd sent, not knowing that they'd broken up, OR some message about the breakup itself, to him.

DOUG: Either way, I wasn't keeping the yoga mat.

PJ: He doesn't know what to do, and to make things worse, he looks up the yoga mat online, finds out that not only was it a thoughtful gift, it was a super-expensive one.

DOUG: The Rolls Royce of yoga mats. Something called the Manduka Black Mat Pro, and it was going for about 140 bucks on Amazon Prime. When you factor in shipping and the weight of this thing, it was not a cheap gift. So ... I didn't really know how to issue a proper thank you to Sarah's mom for this. I didn't exactly want to break the news about the end of the relationship if Sarah hadn't told her yet, but I wasn't about to ask Sarah if she'd talked to her mom either. So, of course, I never really did send a thank you.

Now, three months have passed, and she surely knows about the break-up by now. But, under normal circumstances, a thank-you note at this point is a little inappropriately late. Um, so I hope Sarah's mom knows what the context is, because if not, she's going to be pretty confused come April 30th.

MARYANNE: Hi this is Maryanne calling with her Email Debt Forgiveness story. Um, I used it to admit that, probably 10 years ago, when I was backing out of a friend's house I hit their car, and I knew I wouldn't see them for a long time, so I did not mention it. Um, thank you for the opportunity to deal with this thing I've been ignoring!

GREG: Hi, my name's Greg, and I have this story about Email Debt Forgiveness. So it was Florida, 2005, and I was trying to write a book and I was frequenting a strip club a lot, and I know that sounds like a pretty hollow excuse to be frequenting a strip club, but that's what I was doing. It's a pretty seedy book. And I struck up a pretty legitimate friendship with a young stripper, and we started hanging out outside of the club, and this is not like a euphemism for prostitution. We honestly just met for coffee, and we talked about her life, and uh, you know, I think we developed some feelings for each other, which I know makes me sound delusional.

But um, eventually, this is probably our third or fourth hangout, I think we were at Applebee's, and she said, "Okay I just went into the bathroom to psych myself up, I gotta tell you, I killed two people. It was an accident, but I hit them with my car, and I was drinking, and I'm going to prison on Monday." And I didn't really know how to respond obviously, so, uh, she did go to prison. And she started writing me letters. Uh, actual letters, not emails. And ... I was paralyzed for some reason that I still can't really understand about how to respond to these, because we had a really quick and sort of intimate friendship, but it seemed inappropriate for me to be responding, uh, at that point in my life to a stripper that was in jail, and uh, I think that that makes me out to be kind of a shitty person.

After she finally got out, five years later, she looked me up and emailed me, and sort of just said in the most frank way possible, "Hey, how come you never wrote to me in prison?" And uh, not surprisingly, I kept in character and didn't respond to this email for a long time. I'm not sure if this is the sort of story you're looking for, because I did eventually respond, and it was one of the most agonizing keyboard experiences of my life, just sitting there, having to basically type out, "I am not a man, or at least I wasn't then and I'm sorry, and I can't give you any explanation for why I abandoned you at your worst hour."

And uh, since then, I think that I've profoundly changed as a person. So, the idea of email correspondence has been a pretty heavy issue in my life. Just thought you guys might want to know.


Thanks to everybody who called in, and thanks to everybody who participated. That's our bonus episode. Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, with Alex Goldman. We're produced by Tim Howard and Sruthi Pinnamaneni. We were mixed by Merrte Jacob. Matt Lieber's a gift you weren't expecting. Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, and our ad music is by Build Buildings. 

If you'd like to listen to more episodes of our show, you can find them at, or at Thanks for listening. We'll see you on Wednesday.