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Researcher: "Bursty" email responses link us to Darwin and Einstein

New Scientist Breaking News - Email and letter writing share fundamental pattern

New Scientist article suggests contemporary patterns for answering email may not differ much from the way people had previously dealt with paper correspondence—we tend to respond in "bursty" patterns that give high priority and fast turnaround to important stuff while allowing the less pressing stuff to languish for weeks. The basis for comparison? The letters of Einstein and Darwin:

The pattern could reflect some basic biological encoding that shows up in everything from humans at work to birds foraging for food, according to Albert-László Barabási, a physicist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, US...

Yet despite the differences between electronic communication and paper, the same pattern held up – both [Darwin and Einstein] answered most of their mail quickly, within about 10 days. But some of the answers took months or even years to send (Nature, vol 437, p 1251). "From the scientific point of view, the interesting thing is that there is a fundamental way that we do things," Barabási says.

I wonder if they also had to sift through 90% unsolicited ads for mens' patent medicines and daugerrotypes of Ladies Having Gone Wild.

Here's the home page for Albert-László Barabási and his book, Linked: The New Science of Networks.

[ Thanks, Mr. Kottke ]

Update 2005-10-29 12:38:34

In comments, Fazal writes:

That article has been pretty thoroughly debunked as suffering from sloppy and invalid data analysis. The actual distribution is not the fashionable power law, but rather the log-normal law, a cousin of the good old bell curve.

It's all pops and buzzes from here -- remember I got a C-minus in Geometry as a senior -- but the response does have lots of terms and formulas and appears to be written by someone smart. You guys are, of course, free to rassle over it.

Thing is: even if this research were written in crayon on the back of the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge, it wouldn't alter my (increasingly overstated) opinion on a larger point; technology adopted and applied without proximate (and self-aware) behavioral changes gives us little more than a more efficient way to send our lives out of control. True for Darwin and true for me -- and probably will be as true for George Jetson as it was for Gork the Caveman. Just saying.

[Thanks again for the heads-up, Fazal]

Merlin's picture

I just don’t get this...

I just don’t get this at all.

[Jesus Christ, this plus five emails from people remarking on how dumb and obvious this. Okay fine. Lemme ‘splain...]

One of the perpetual promises of technology has always been that we’ll finally have the tools we need to be more efficient and to deal with larger amounts of “stuff” than in previous times. And time and again that’s shown to be a complete myth; the washing machine didn’t open up hours of extra time each week—it just increased people’s expectations of what could be accomplished and how quickly.

Same with email, which used to always be sold as this great time-saving leveler that would bring untold levels of convenience to our lives. Seriously you remember that? No more drudgery of phone calls, meetings, and pagers. Wow, how swell that will be! 1996 is going to be the best year ever.

So flash forward ten years post-AOL, and now we all have 2000 messages in our inbox and we struggle not to drown; we answer the boss's crap first because we’re terrrified she’ll see the mask slip and discover how screwed and behind we are thanks to all this wonderful “convenience.” Yay, email.

The point that you (and apparently several other people) find so blinking obvious is really only clear in retrospect, AFAIC. The fact that we’ve enabled—even fought—to bring all these whizbang new implements into our lives just to leave us worse off than we were in the 19th century seem pretty dang notable to me; we have even less grasp of how to change behavior than people had then, except now, who has the time to fix it? Gotta go check my email.

Please. If this is all so bloody obvious, why aren’t more people thrilled with the condition of their inbox right now?




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