In the 70s and early 80s when I was a great email evangelist and a half-assed email application coder and a not too bad email systems admin, there were no cell phones (1983 was the first commercial cell), there were no truly mobile computers (Osbourne 1 in 1981 and Kaypro in 1982), telephone answering machine were still mostly tape decks. There were some video text projects; none really succeeded.
Portable phone of the past -- could they do email?
Now wonder email looked so fantastic!
And as a utopian popularizer, I was happy to predict that email would change everything in communications. It did and for a while was quite wonderful and even freeing and at least it enhanced productivity and even built relationships.
I was reminded of this separately by two folks who organized talks around the UNC campus to promote email, Libby Evans and Byron Howes. But as we reminisced about those heady times, I could only think of what a complete mess email has become. All that we had said email would do is better done by apps — and email never adapted to a truly mobile world.
One look at Blackberry users and their construction of use says so much to this. A special purpose device that just does constantly trickling email has had a phone stuck on it in an ungainly way, a web browser plunked on a too small of a screen for the target users, etc. It’s an email reader made worse.
Phones went through the same identity crisis — save Apple’s iPhone which has always been less phone that computer with phone back up.
Now the market is settling down on multipurpose, location aware, multimedia producing and receiving devices. And email looks even more clunky, more like a communications oddity than a solution. More like a 50s console stereo system than a 70s component or like a digital system that you carry with you and stuck in anywhere. It cannot be dressed up and taken out.
As much as I loved being a part of email’s development, evolution, adaption and acceptance, I’ve been wondering when and where to stop the madness. Not to check out as a Luddite might, nor to take an email vacation, nor to declare bankruptcy, nor to just hand it over to a secretary to do for me, but to really commit myself to seeing if the nacent concepts of activity streams, of open social, of hyper-intergration, of emerging and sinking social communications apps can do the jobs given to email and do those jobs better.
That’s the #noemail project and it begins at midnight tonight.
I’m giving up email beginning June 1, 2011. But f I’ll be open to
communicating through many other channels and technologies. I’m
convinced that there must be better and more effective ways for us to
communicate and to get our work done.
You will be able to reach me on
and on most socialnetworking sites as smalljones including:
and on The Real Paul Jones blog http://ibiblio.org/pjones/blog
If you’d like to schedule a meeting with me, my calendar is on Google
Calendar http://www.google.com/calendar as email@example.com You
can pick a time there and schedule your best time to meet face to
Heffernan notices that EEEEEEEK! email is discoverable, persistent, leaves a long footprint, and often embarrassing if not incriminating. The safer alternative is, ssssssh!, LDL — not as defined in the Urban Dictionary where some definitions may be NSFW nor the more common “Let’s Do Lunch,” but “Let’s Discuss Live”.
From whence comes “LDL”? According to Heffernan:
Goldman’s Jonathan Egol is the first known master. When a trader named Fabrice Tourre described a mortgage investment in e-mail as “a way to distribute junk that nobody was dumb enough to take first time around,” Egol shot back: “LDL.”
While one can wonder about the morality of Egol, Tourre, the use of LDL and even of Heffernan for spreading notice of the practice, LDL brings back one of the first email lessons that I, writing as Emily Postmail, tried to teach new users, that is, “email is not so much mail as a post card that cannot be easily retrieved or revoked or removed.” Ollie North found this out the hard way in the Iran-Contra Hearings.
This applies to most all electronic communications. But email seems more like Tribbles than most other activity streams: it seems so warm and attractive, it seems harmless but needs some attention, it needs more attention, it seems like the Tribbles to reproduce at will, but unlike the Tribbles there seems to be no end to it — no poisoned grain. No Trouble With Harry or even Trouble With Angels here.
Bones: They reproduce at will. And brother, have they got a lot of will!
Privacy vs Secrecy is another matter — this is what LDL is really about. The folks who got in trouble were mostly relaying illegal information in what they thought was a secret way. Most people are upset about violations of their privacy, their legal but none-of-your-biznez behaviors
I get an unsolicited email. My out-of-office Outlook message bounces it back. I get an out-of-office email from the sender. I love this internet thingee.
I check my inbox — sorry, still do do this til June 1. I have a dozen instances like this. In fact, I’ve been unsubscribed from one list I had forgotten about because of “too many bounces.” On inspection, the bounces weren’t caused by my own away messages, but from the list service malforming their own mail headers.
The battle between “away/out of office/I quit email” messages points out one thing that email despite being over 30 years old cannot do very well–email interoperability is terrible. Like a dancing pig, it’s a miracle that it happens to work in the first place.
Thanks email, for taking another 15 minutes of my life managing bounces.
And while I’m at it, the worst of the bounces, “Email undeliverable because the recipients inbox is full,” was one of the stacks of bounces. The original message began “Please let me know …” Sorry I can’t let you know anything until you clean out your lame underprovisioned inbox or change your email service.
My point is that situations like this should never happen at all. And with the right services, those other than email, they don’t. Smarter services including Facebook chat, Gtalk, AIM, Skype, etc let you know before you begin the conversation whether the person you want to communication is available or not. If not, there are provisions offered for asynchronous messaging.
Activity streams and hyper-integration help you communicate effectively.
I expected to get a kind of FLOSS lecture about #noemail, but instead I ended up brainstorming with Michael who immediately grasped what I’m after in the project — perhaps better than I do.
Michael reminded me of a Red Hat created open source Facebook challenger called, Mugshot, from back in 2006. Mugshot was more developed in my memory than Diaspora is now, but the project didn’t take off for whatever reasons. Parts of Mugshot are in Magnetism and maintained by Personas.com. Mugshot was a hyper aggregator and very nice and easy to use and accepted communications from most known social sites as well as a place you could hold a conversation about say a website or even a TV show.
In many ways, Mugshot would have been exactly what I’m looking for to deal with my activity streams.
But our talk quickly turned back to email. Michael sees email as a “enterprise service bus” that connects many applications via a common messaging format into a central processing unit. That CPU is YOU. You, dear human friends, are the processor that sorts out To Dos, Meeting Scheduling, Queries, Complaints, Referrals. In a fact, we probably spend more time sorting email than actually answering email. This is exactly the opposite of what one would like technology to do for us; we’re suddenly like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times
What Michael and I are saying is not that communication has gone wrong and enslaved us, but that the wrong technology implementation is in place. Moving email out of the picture or at least away from the center toward the edge of our activities, moving the sorting operation out altogether, integrating existing apps and allowing for the integration of new and developing apps — open source or not — via open protocols, APIs, embedding and even referrals, how that might be done is one of the main goals of the #noemail project.
For years, I’ve been an advocate of FLOSS aka Free/Libre and Open Source Software. The nearly 19 year old sunsite/metalab/ibiblio project is a testimony to my work in Open Source and Open Information. I’ve not give that up.
Open Source dot Org
How to explain then giving up something that appears to be open or at least have some strong open options like email for options that provide an activity stream but that are closed or worse (according to some) walled gardens?
First I would argue that most email isn’t free and open so much as interoperable. I think interoperablity is a good thing, but many of the activity stream applications are interoperable as well. To say that, “I like my mail open and not owned by The Man” when you have just sent me email from Outlook, GMail or HotMail hosted accounts isn’t very convincing.
I’m convinced that net neutrality and open protocols and as far as I can manage it open source software will be what works out in the long run even for the #noemail project. To that end, I don’t see unitary solutions that might work on an intranet solution to work well in the open internet — Sorry Yammer and Lotus Connections and your pals. Instead, I see some sort of shifting and developing network of interoperable applications that will be formed by the interactions of technological, sociological, psychological and business constraints and opportunities.
Many of the current attempts at activity streams see email as central to the effort, I don’t. In fact, I see the persistance of email as a mistake like an investment in horse collars as Ford expanded his factories or in typewriters as truly personal and popular computers were hitting the market.
It’s my hope that open source options will be essential to the creation of an evolving activity stream ecosystem.
Help me by suggesting some good FLOSS and Open Information options. One obvious project is the Open Social Project; any experience with that?
One new reason why #noemail project exists: “Please reply this e-mail, if you don’t want to recieve any more e-mails from Turkish Ear Nose Throat Society…”
One week before the #noemail experiment begins on June 1 and already I’ve been noticing some very different coping or lack of coping mechanisms in the responses to my “Divesting in Email” away message.
Briefly, I began entry into #noemail first by talking to folks informally about what life would be like if instead of making email the center of communications that I removed that part entirely from my life. I wanted to have this work less like Donald Knuth and more like Luis Suarez. That is not just bailing on electronic communications, but divesting my attention and time investments from email and placing them in a variety of social media.
My message in my email responder was and is brief but direct and offers a good number of alternatives for reaching me, scheduling a meeting with me and keeping up with me. And it announces the cut off date of June 1.
First the angry responses, the how-dare-you-do-this, the how-will-we-ever-speak-write-or-communicate, came in. They came most strongly from a single demographic, people who only occasionally write me who are also over 55. Most of these folks assaulted the alternatives — “I would never make a YouTube video to communicate with you” (err no but if you chose to that would be fine), “[Twitter, Facebook, etc] is an absurd waste of time; email makes sense.” “I only use [LinkedIn, Facebook, IM, Skype] for [family, business] not for anything else.”–and several tried to convince me of email’s great utility at least two of these were people to whom I had used the same arguments to convince them to use email 20+ years ago. This last was like an odd echo across time. I appreciate the irony.
The second group said “I wish I could do that.” Then largely they would contact me by Skype, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc and we’d link up there. These folks were almost entirely between 25 (or 30) and 55. A couple were closer to my age (61) but were very involved in social media. These folks were more likely to say, “Sure I use use [LinkedIn, Facebook, IM, Skype] for [family, business] so it’ll be simple to contact you in the same way.” There will be some sorting out here, but I expect to learn a lot from these folks.
The final group never got my away message. They don’t use email all that much. It didn’t occur to them to contact me by email when there were other ways to do so that worked better for them. Largely these folks were under 25 or 30. They use txt or IM or Gtalk or Facebook — and if they were or are in the Journalism School or in the biz– on Twitter. They are already where I hope to be.
In the future, I think that we’ll be doing more and more with activity streams that integrate several appropriate and focused applications some of which are highly interactive (Gtalk, im), some self-serve (calendars and the like), some collaborative (Google Docs, Doodle), some for sharing (blogs, Flickr, etc), some highly specialized (Audioboo, maps, Tripit), all easy to integrate and to allow to interact. Email will be the glue or the roadkill. After watching email attempt to be the glue, I’m pretty sure it will end up roadkill.
For me, twitter has many good uses: trusted news referrals, light touches with friends, hyperlocal and international doings, wit in the hands of the better tweeple and with DMs a mutual opt-in private message sharing service. Twitter always returns more value for time spent for me than email.
The Twitter Trap - NYTimes by James Joyce
Nonetheless, Bill Keller writing in the NYTimes Magazine can’t wait to rehearse his parent’s anxiety about something that he doesn’t do or understand as soon as he sees his teenage daughter behaving like a teenage daughter. “The Twitter Trap” quickly becomes a Parent Trap as Keller ratchets up the Moral Panic in a New York Times style guide sort of way.
Before Keller’s article even saw Sunday distribution, Nick Bilton writing on the New York Times Bits blog had out a responce (that I was referred to by Twitter) “This is Your Brain on Twitter”. Nick hits the points without getting at the underlying Moral Panic issue. He does notice that Twitter is an activity stream of highly mixed activities and mixed values. The point is the stream — that’s way it’s a good alternative to how some use email for some functions and activities.
Note that #noemail isn’t about saving my soul from the satanic email and delivering it instead to Twitter, Facebook, etc, but to divest in a crappy technology and reinvesting in a number of better more efficient and effective technologies. I expect to consolidate my investments over time, dropping some and adding others, as I better understand and observe how you and I sort them out.
According to the UNC-Chapel Hill Computing History site and my own memory, UNC-Chapel Hill had a mad idea — everyone on campus would be reachable by email, even if they didn’t own a computer. My own position was that if someone wanted to use email as their preferred means of communication, it should be made as easy of possible to include addresses that would act as gateways to several distribution means — Internet, Bitnet, paper and even fax (something that my pal Carl Malamud would make real in a very broad way in a 1993 Request For Comments).
But how to make it happen?
Toby Considine then of UNC Facilities and the Mail Services and I dreamed up a way to place a small printer in the campus postal and interoffice distribution center. One could send email to conventional email addresses and with no extra effort to the printer for those who were computerless. My software would look up a physical address to match the “paper email” address and format the message for printing on NCR paper that included a little window thru which the physical address needed to deliver the message but not the message itself could be read. The paper email messages would then be taken off the printer and put in the regular mail distribution flow.
It mostly worked. One time someone, perhaps in my own office (but not me), routed an entire mainframe memory dump to a paper mail address. Luckily the alert mail room guys shut off the printer and called me. I killed the message and all was well.
December 1988: Everyone on campus has an email userid. Mail sent to an assigned userid is printed and delivered to the recipient’s office
Eventually paper email vanished. Everyone had email addresses. But there is some kind of lesson here not just for email and cobbled together network gateways and the urge to get broader solutions to communication needs.
Now if the #noemail project can find a good way to integrate the existing and emerging services that I use to manage my activity streams and interact with others, we will have learned something. I have a feeling that this will be an ongoing project of discovery and appropriation — rather than outright invention.
I’ve seen too many platforms deform and decompose too quickly to say that Facebook has all the answers or could ever achieve implementation of the answers that they do have, but I do believe that Sandberg is on the right track (since it’s the same track that I’m on myself). Worth a view — and worth the panic and the anger in the comments ;->
I’d had a full day of meetings, Face to Face, with people yesterday and so did no email. One of my colleagues Skyped me to say let’s go to the Bull game and so I spent the evening without email as well.
Stealing the headline completely from Matt Lynley of Venture Beat (and one of my former students) to point to the growth and changes in Yammer as it moves toward a comprehensive activity streams service.
Yammer is doing exactly what I’ve been talking about in moving beyond email and integrating services and activities in a more effective way. I haven’t used Yammer in a while, but it looks like time to revisit it.
One downside for me and the #noemail project is that Yammer is designed for intranets. Great for companies, as is Lotus Connections, but I want to try working in public and in the wild.
I do think the rise of alternative notification channels; sms, mobile push notifications, direct messages on twitter, facebook messaging, etc are going to move some of this kind of thing off of email over time. But today, if you want to drive retention and repeat usage, there isn’t a better way to do it than email.
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.
I’ve only been using something like email since 1977, but I stayed with it longer all the time hoping for improvements. The promised improvements didn’t come from email really; more from the various email interfaces the best of which are still attempting to integrate “Activity Streams” and variously named productivity flows into the desktop in some meaningful manner. The first mistake is focusing on the desktop and on work.
Just as Xerox focused on a personal computer while — as Malcom Gladwell notices (behind a paywall at New Yorker) — Apple focused on a popular and affordable computer, email integration needs to so to where people both play and work, where they have family, friends and co-workers in some customizable way. And that means the most personal interfaces yet known — those on mobile devices.
In the meantime, I’m exploring other options with your help. When you or others contact me and where will help me decide where to put my communications energies and time.
Unlike Knuth, who handily handed off his email tasks to his secretary as he declared email abandonment, I’m divesting and looking for better, more efficient options.
Email is becoming more focused. Ed [Brill, IBM’s new leader for social collaboration] said that his own email volume has actually decreased in the era of other social tools. File sharing, for example, has moved to these social tools. However, the email he gets more often requires an action on his part. The concept of an activity stream is getting a lot of play these days. This capability had its origins with micro-blogging when auto-generated updates made an appearance. Email can serve this same function. Ed said that the activity stream, regardless of location, will evolve beyond simple alerts. It will allow for direct actions. For example a request for vacation can be approved right in the message with one click, rather than requiring opening another app. REST APIs allow for this capability and it will be a big productivity booster.
Ed said that IBM is working to embed these actions within email. It is also working to apply analytics to email traffic to determine what might be useful to users. For example, it could let users know who should they talk to about certain issues based on email traffic. They are also working to make the activity stream more pervasive, as well as more connected to other apps. SAP is one example, of this increased connection.
My own take on this is that the activity stream already pretty much exists in a variety of ways — all of which I’m still going to use after June 1′s divesture from email — all of which are more effective than email. Ed and Bill point to file sharing as an example. One thing that’s bigger here is that a kind of intelligent use of analytics to determine which actions are best handled where is called for or predicted or being pre-pitched. A lot of that exists already in Gmail and even iPhone mail: great spam filtering, great sensing of Priority, adding links that might be dates and so could be moved to calendars easily, gTalk and on Facebook chat and message integration, etc. Tripit can scan your inbox and build your travel itinerary — and it does a great job.
I’d like it if I never saw my inbox at all (as I plan to try out), but by analytics or by human redirection that actions, requests and services end up at the right places where they can be handled more efficiently.
I’ve got no problem with the number of choices for doing different things. I only want to divest in the least efficient and most annoying channels — starting with email.
email has always been a Rube Goldberg operation. In the early days of Usenet and UUCP — before BITNET or a well-connected ARPAnet, sysadmins had to collect and share tables not just of known hosts but also of known routes. If you didn’t know a good route to another computer on the net or had a slack sysadmin, you were stuck. If you did know and perhaps knew better than your sysadmin, you could explicitly specify the route of your mail in the address by means of Bangs! aka !. Here’s an example of such an explicit route address from Wikipedia:
In earlier days, there would be no example.com — in fact no .com at all. Those were a simpler and for some a happier time. Not for me! I’m ready to move on from email!!! email has been too banged up for too long.
When I arrived at the University of North Carolina in 1977, I had had no experience at all with computer messaging systems. In fact the term “email” wasn’t invented yet. 1977 was the year that the first of the RFCs regarding email was issued (RFC733 – “Standard for the format of ARPA network text messages”). Although the Computer Science Department was nearby, those of us working on the IBM 360/75 had to be content with a non-networked mainframe and its primitive time-sharing system CALLOS which called nothing much but allowed for some simple messaging and light weight programming. CS would soon be using UUCP (The Unix to Unix Copy Program or occasionally and more properly Protocol) developed by Mike Lesk, but for the moment even their email was mostly on the same computers. Usenet’s invention was only a few years off (2 or 3), but CALLOS was about as good as one could hope for — if one’s hope weren’t too high.
Somehow I managed to get to share responsibility for CALLOS with Martin Feinstein and tried my hand at a few scripts that I used to create games which were more like question answerers than games. I never got very far but I was heavily influenced by the folks I saw obsessively playing “Adventure” aka “Adventure Cave” on the teletype machines. Nothing on CALLOS could approach the complex Fortran-based Adventure with its dwarves, canaries, dragons and the secret word passed on from player to player – “XYZZY” .
Years, not so many years, later a City Planning student, Howard Cherniak, who had completed the Adventure give me a printout of the Fortan code. I have no idea where it is now nor do I know what became of Howard. Perhaps he has returned to the edge of a dark forest typing downstream and hoping to rejoin the cheering band of friendly elves.
Whilst this report reported on at Mashable is done by an independent research group commissioned by Microsoft, the resulting graphics completely overstate the importance of Outlook and of Microsoft in the creation of email culture and use. M$FT was very very late to the party and Outlook continues to fail to play well with most standards due in large part to a creative misreading of the RFCs and a continuing impulse to embrace and extend the protocols. Not that M$FT hasn’t contributed to my own decision to quit email despite the perceptions, reported here, that email is so essential that it cannot be abandoned.
These result in little vignettes and sketches of withdrawal and envy of others still using email (or chocolate or coffee or whatever has been given up). But one week? That’s hardy a change. Lent is longer that than (40 days if you are unaware).
And these experiments such as they are don’t offer attempts are an advanced replacement of any kind. If there is any substitution, it’s usually backwards looking — paper, phone, fax — fercrissake fax! — or face to face as if that were the only alternative.
Not what I’m after at all. I’m looking to see how folks will sort out the various richer and more appropriate communications options offered online and off in the absence of email.