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Email Insanity & the 0.001 Challenge

Via a Toot by Jeff Atwood comes this thoughtful post by Tantek Çelik on how email is no longer working for him. His first reason is a biggie:

1. Point to point communications do not scale.

All forms of communication where you have to expend time and energy on communicating with a specific person (anything that has a notion of "To" in the interface that you have to fill in) are doomed to fail at some limit. If you are really good you might be able to respond to dozens (some claim hundreds) of individual emails a day but at some point you will simply be spending all your time writing email rather than actually "working" on any thing in particular (next-actions or projects, e.g. coding, authoring, drawing, enjoying your life etc.)

This is one reason I'm getting attracted to using Get Satisfaction as a way to expose help issues to a large group of helpers and helpees (BTW, we're just getting started on GS -- FAQs and more will be coming soon). I'm also realizing that this is why I (and Jonathan Coulton and probably you) struggle with holding up dozens of one-on-one conversations -- it locks up your attention and its fruits in thousands of inaccessible alcoves. And truly, that does not and will not scale.

But, y'know, as I read Tantek's post, alongside his "Communication Protocols" notes, I found myself returning to a pet theory that I've been too embarrassed to lay out in a real post. But what the heck, I'll capture some notes and you can tell me what you think:

I suspect that email encourages people to act insane.

Right this minute, you can create an email of unlimited length covering topics of unlimited scope and then send it to unlimited numbers of people -- whom you may or may not even know -- all at absolutely no cost to you. There is also no prohibition or boundary of any kind on how you phrase that email. There's no formal penalty or even feedback for when you're using email inappropriately (e.g. the dirty look that you'd get if you said something this weird to someone's face). Plus, of course, YOU get to decide (at least in your own head) exactly how quickly all those people should be getting back to you about whatever it is you emailed them about. And you can do this pretty much any time you want and as many times a day as it suits you. No Limits.

An optimist would say this indicates what a wonderfully flexible tool email is. But, a pessimist with 1500 unread emails will point out that this Wild West of Communication seems to bring out the nut in people.

As I say, there must be something about email's unusual combination of intimacy and distance that can get people very emotionally engaged in hammering out demands in an email message. And not just flames -- I'm talking about people whose de facto style is borne out of an uninhibited conduit between thoughts, emotions, or desires and the email medium that helps them convert that into some kind of request.

How and why this is related to Tantek's post, I'm not entirely sure. But I think there's some common ground here. Especially as this relates to that one-on-one idea and why it doesn't scale.

Email culture and etiquette -- if there is such a thing -- occurs when people have a sense of how their behavior will be seen and evaluated by anyone who is not themselves. The reason most of us wear pants to the grocery store is the same reason that some people think very hard about every word that goes into their email messages and what it will mean when people read them. They understand that the message should be more about the recipient than themselves. And the Great Ones will take the time to get the tone right too -- to phrase things so that misunderstandings and unintentional emotional provocations don't occur.

But if -- even without realizing it -- you see email primarily as a one-on-one medium for venting some...thing that's on your mind, you're going to produce a lot of electronic madness. Especially if you think no one is watching.

I'm going to think on this some more, but I'll close with a related thought on why this all goes straight back to Time & Attention 101.

Any system without scarcity or limitation will eventually suffer at the hands of people who aren't overtly aware of boundaries -- or who actively choose to break those boundaries because they can. Limitations in a communication medium not only make you think a little harder about what you have to say, they also encourage you to focus on what you and your recipient really need out of the exchange.

While I'm not suggesting anything as extreme as the five-sentence email, I wonder if this might be a fun exercise to try for a day:

The 0.001 Challenge

Imagine that the person receiving the email you’re composing receives 1,000 other message each day more or less identical to yours. What would you do to distinguish yours from the others? What change would make your email amazingly easy to deal with and not insane? Does the content of your email belong someplace else? Like an SMS, a face-to-face meeting — or maybe even in an angry, venting screed that you never send.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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