43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

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.

peadar58's picture

Are we advancing?

This discussion reminds me once again how slow we are to evolve as humans, and how easily we are dazzled by the illusion of speed that technology flashes in front of us. The Megabytes anf MegaHertz multiply but our IQ/EQ remains solidly neolithic! I was really interested in the contrast librarylass made between corporate settings and online "communities" or socialising. Don't get me wrong some of my tightest "communities" are to be found in my internet life. I also have at least two friends who I would (after seven/eight years of communication) describe as close friends that I have only met with online; although I know it is in my plan to eventually encounter them face to face. But I've also seen some very phoney sort of sympathy/emotional fluff buzzing around in online groups. I'm sometimes amazed at how cavalier folk can be with forwarding and CC lists or Reply All. I don't think we yet fully understand that once we put stuff "out there" it is gone FOREVER from our grasp as people are realising with Facebook and stuff. On balance though I can't imagine my life without the dimension of the "interWEB" or e-mail. It's a bit like that Woody Allen joke where the guy reports his family is having trouble with his brother, who thinks he's a hen. "Why don't you turn him in?" asks his friend and the answer is "Well, we would, but we need the eggs..."

Plenty of crap out there but most of feel we need the eggs!




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »