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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]

Zak's picture

Merlin, The fact that people and...


The fact that people and animals tend to do the most important things first is hardly a surprising finding, as others have pointed out.

The fact that technology has not given us infinite capacity--freeing us from the need to prioritize--is also hardly surprising.




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