The tide turned and junk moved online. Talk of email addiction has changed to internet and social network and game and particularly Facebook addiction tracking the trends closely. Addiction? No. Over-fascination? Yes. The mechanics and contents are unchanged but the social and psychological relations between postal mail and email have switched places.
And with that switch, love forever changes.
Arthur Lee and Love – Forever Changes (London 2001)
As you may know, John Cage is famous in part for his pieces that used silence especially in his 4’33” — not playing or performing but listening to what you would have missed had you been listening only to a performance. He seems then the right person to join Marshall McLuhan as a guiding light for the #noemail project.
What email means is as important as what it does and doesn’t do. That is one of the points of the #noemail project. There are better ways of communication. Those better ways should assist in relieving stress rather than becoming a cultural and individual symbol of overwork and stress.
This paper just out from researchers at Stanford and Boston University does a fine job of quantifying and explaining what email means. May require library access or subscription for access.
I note with some irony that the email addresses of the authors are included in the abstract and in the paper.
E-mail as a Source and Symbol of Stress
Stephen R. Barley, Debra E. Meyerson, Stine Grodal
Department of Management Science and Engineering, School of Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305
School of Education, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305
Department of Strategy and Innovation, School of Management, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts 02215
The increasing volume of e-mail and other technologically enabled communications are widely regarded as a growing source of stress in people’s lives. Yet research also suggests that new media afford people additional flexibility and control by enabling them to communicate from anywhere at any time. Using a combination of quantitative and qualitative data, this paper builds theory that unravels this apparent contradiction. As the literature would predict, we found that the more time people spent handling e-mail, the greater was their sense of being overloaded, and the more e-mail they processed, the greater their perceived ability to cope. Contrary to assumptions of prior studies, we found no evidence that time spent working mediates e-mail-related overload. Instead, e-mail’s material properties entwined with social norms and interpretations in a way that led informants to single out e-mail as a cultural symbol of the overload they experience in their lives. Moreover, by serving as a symbol, e-mail distracted people from recognizing other sources of overload in their work lives. Our study deepens our understanding of the impact of communication technologies on people’s lives and helps untangle those technologies’ seemingly contradictory influences.
Bascha Harris of OpenSource.com and I did an interview using Google Docs checking in after 8 weeks without email. Part of the pleasure of the interview is how nicely interactive Google Docs is and how well that environment works for interviews. The integration with Gtalk, the change tracking, the real time updates, the easy for adding comments and notes make for a painless way of collaborative writing — and a good, I think, interview.
“The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organisation, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.” McLuhan 1962
Here and during interview and on discussion boards, I’ve offered GetSatisfaction and related socially empowered answer sites as better tools for handling customer complaints and suggestions for businesses and even schools. Add to that voting systems like Google Moderator and User Voice (this last being used at UNC – Chapel Hill for feedback on the ERP effort)
What’s so great about these systems? #noemail of course. But more the technology does what the users and the providers actually want to see happen in a nice clean way. No convoluted emails or mis-sorted trouble tickets.
It’s a great idea to start telling folks early about your plans to go #noemail. I started several months in advance talking to my family, my Deans and my colleagues about my plans. I also chatted some about the idea to my current (at the time) students.
I started with an auto-responder/vacation/away message one month in advance of going #noemail telling folks about my plans and offering many various alternatives — perhaps too many and too various — and offering to accept suggestions of additional alternatives.
Some people deserve and should get a more tailored explanation and warning. I specifically contacted the students who has signed up for our fall class — also early on.
Make some public announcements via the alternatives. I didn’t make a YouTube video, but I did make early announcements on Twitter, Facebook, Quora, Diaspora, LinkedIn and on this blog. Later on, I did some lengthy interviews with OpenSource.com and with ReeseNews.org.
Alternatives can and should be flexible, changeable and even in some cases abandoned. When I started #noemail, Google Plus wasn’t announced. I added that service as an alternative soon after the announcement. I’ll likely drop a few of the alternatives that have yet to be used by anyone to contact me
Do monitor the alternatives that you’ve suggested heavily at least for the first few weeks. People need to know that you are serious about the alternatives; not just abandoning all communication with them.
Browers tabs are your friend. I created one browser instance, in my case Chrome, with a tab for each of the alternatives that I had suggested in my Away message. I kept the browser minimized for most of the day to reduce my distractions.
I looked for some good alternatives for Listserv reading and rediscovered RSS. Most Listservs support reading by RSS feeds which are much better organized and much better for reading than having a ton of messages dumped into my inbox — even with filters and folders and the like. Unfortunately Mailman, a favorite Open Source listserving option, doesn’t support RSS in any easy way. Lyris, currently used by UNC, does but not in a very easy to understand way (I blogged about how to get that to work below).
Some lists are archived on blogs or other sites that have their own RSS feeds.
Trouble tickets and customer services are better dealt with by online forms or services like GetSatisfaction. I plan to do a blog post on this in the future. We’ve not used email for trouble tickets at ibiblio for several years nor do many others. Spam is only part of the problem. Applying some structure to trouble tickets helps them be solved more quickly and effectively. Solving the problems openly ala GetSatisfaction increases satisfaction.
Use OpenID, GoogleID, Facebook and/or Twitter to join new sites. Email is often required to join a site, make an order etc, but these alternatives are offered by most that I’ve dealt with since going #noemail and they work great. They certainly reduced my cognitive load for handling ids and passwords. Confirmations and resulting announcements from sites really fill up my inbox even though I work hard to turn off those options and/or opt out, like zombies they keep coming. #noemail fixes that problem nicely.
Phones are fine. So is Face-to-Face. Some people, particularly those who have a serious and real difficulty, really need to have a meeting over coffee, in the office or at least a phone call. Our email instinct is often to try to hash things out in asynchronous messages. IMs and/or video conferences are better than email, but when folks are anxious or passionate or aggrieved the more open, personal and interactive you can be the better.
The most resistant demographic to #noemail are those people between 50 and 65 years old. Not everyone between 50 and 65, but you’ll find many of them. They may need other alternatives — see phone and Face-to-Face.
The most vocally resisting group are, unsurprisingly, those who make a living directly or indirectly via email. Those who run a business dealing with mailing management, advising folks about email newsletters, managing contacts, managing email services, and certain systems administrators who are responsible for email and messaging. I’m in sympathy with many of these folks as I’d been the postmaster for UNC for many years (see posts below). But spurious claims about the superior security and control offered email undercut their objections drastically. The argument isn’t really about technology, but about emotion. As Upton Sinclair once observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Just for fun, I did the Google search that I should have done weeks ago just after the show looking for email is dead and “email is dead”. Several million stories, opinion pieces, articles full of dread and/or wishful thinking fill the results.
One thing we all pretty much agree on — okay, I admit I only read over about 20 or so of the articles — is that email is threatened or communications are done better by IM, restricted messaging systems ala Facebook, and now by Google+. Whether email is threatened, changing or will still be here in a much diminished role are mostly arguments of hope (if you are frustrated by email), fear (if you feel your company depends on email especially) or tied to a variation of definitions of what email is (the “message is a message” school of social communications ignorance).
The bottom line is that email as we knew it in the late 1980s and early 1990s is already out the door. Soon email or whatever gets called email will be unrecognizable to the folks like David Crocker who wrote the original RFCs (RFC822 and associated papers) for the Internet Engineering Task Force.
As the photo above shows the social normalization of #noemail is and has been underway for a while. There will be no turning back. There are better days and better communications options ahead — and many here right now!
Now social networking services are on track to replace email as the primary communications method for many business users in the next few years. It’s a concept IBM social computing evangelist Luis Suarez (who describes his experience in a 2008 article for the New York Times at this link – PJ) has advocated for several years. But this new paradigm impacts more than the inbox. As each company looks to incorporate social networking technologies, it is, in fact, becoming what IBM calls a Social Business.
This approach shifts the focus from static content and other temporary artifacts to the source of the energy, creativity, and decision making that moves the business forward: people. As a result, people not only find what they need, but also discover valuable expertise and information they weren’t even looking for that might solve a problem in a new way.
From the archives of Speed Hallman. The same day a story ran in the Daily Tar Heel about a new course in “Cyberpublishing and Cybercasting”, this chart ran as part of a story on UNC’s email explosion. It shows that the semester was beginning with a giant increase in Internet/email ids — by 1,900 raising the total UNC email space to over 14,000. Note that email and Internet confused even then.
People have suggested many reasons why one should or should not use email or #noemail. Like most technology, there are four factors interacting that cannot be isolated from each other but that can really make the choices difficult or simple.
Many of my IT pals would like to fix email through some technical changes (they see these are improvements) aimed at changing misuses of email — shortmail and sentenc.es and even Gmail are promising examples of technology modifications for email. They say mail filters are the answer. etc.
Some people just love email. It means something deep to them. Others just don’t like change. They have something that they are very comfortable with and won’t want to learn anything else. One friend said: I still love Pine — for example. It works the other way too: “Paul is always just trying something new and shiny.”
Where my friends, business, etc are is where I want to be. The social is very strong. Not just about being social but how our social circles define themselves. Examples: I won’t have a Blackberry because that’s for suits. I’m in open source so I need an Android phone. My band and my fans are all still on MySpace; we’ll never leave. Only dorks use [whatever]. All the cool kids are on Google +.
Politics and law are also exert a very strong influence on how tools are used and preceived as in: My boss insists that we all use [whatever system]. We can’t use Facebook at work; the IT folks blocked it because of company policy. HIPPA requires that we keep records this way. Isn’t there a state law about that? I travel to Iran and that software won’t work there.
Technological – the tool part of being a tool including function and interface
Psychological – your attitude, perceptions and use needs etc. you are part of the tool and it’s part of you
Social – how your friends, colleagues, etc see and use the tool in a social and cultural context.
Political – you must or must not use this tool or you may only use this tool for [whatever]
Nick Mehta writing in Mashable blames your overflowing email inbox and your desire to check in on it on — YOU! Yes, you loser, you are just too lonely, vain, anxious, and self-deceiving. Nick assumes somehow if you are social, self-effacing, calmly unparanoid and have a clear self-perception — tada! — your email problems will be solved.
Note to Nick: email comes to your inbox from somewhere other than yourself. Mostly not even from people, as I’ve seen in the past weeks are people are redirected to other more sane means of communications, but from various automatic mailings, alerts, confirmations, and the like. No psychological changes on your part will have much impact on the amount of email you receive. You may change your reading and responding habits, but there will be email as sure as the sun rises in the east.
Yes, I’m ranting this time and I hope uncharacteristically. I admit I’ve been infected with a rant-virus after having read the rants posing as comments following the WRAL interview. ;->
One of the many great things that David Christopher brought to my attention is this video on social media for business done by Red Sky Vision of UK which begins with the premise: “There is disconnect between how immersed and digitally connected employees are outside of the workplace, and how their internal communications are being delivered. On the ground, employees are still posting printed communications on the water cooler when they can be engaged, led and informed via the latest digital channel.”.
“Technology has somehow skipped the organization.” More deeply it’s about taking social to the C-Suite (as the Brits call the housing for the CxO level execs). It’s a convincing piece of work, beautiful and well-produced. Part a pitch for and to effective Internal Communicators, part a backhanded compliment to services like Yammer.
Brian Shrader of WRAL shot some footage for a #noemail story a few weeks back. He had the story ready before Google Plus was announced, so it may seem a little dated instead of forward looking. Nonetheless he did a great job including digging up some ancient email footage which some old time computer geeks will appreciate. Last night the story ran on the 6 pm news as “UNC professor tries to go email free”.
Google+ is not quite two weeks old. I quit doing email just about six weeks ago. I did give a one month warning back on May 1 (and on this blog on May 3).
I’ll admit that giving up email seemed radical, like putting myself at risk of some kind. But I know enough about myself that if I don’t take myself out of my comfort areas, I don’t learn very much and more importantly I don’t see the things that suddenly become obvious. I had spent too much of my life convincing people that email could improve their lives — and relative to phone calls, memos and the like, email has improved our communications environment.
But more and more the juryrigged nature of email showed it cracking up and not just at the edges. Improvements in collaboration technologies for scheduling meetings (shared calendars and Doodle), for coauthoring documents (Gdocs, MindTouch, various wikis, and even Sharepoint), for sharing pictures and videos (Picasa, Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, etc), for transferring files and doing backups (Dropbox, Box.com, etc), for managing the sharing of casual information in social networks (various activity streams) including location (4Square and various check-in providing relatives) left email in the dust. Even trouble ticket reporting via email is dead, replaced by services like GetSatisfaction.
Technical developments like JSON and HTML5 have provided the technology underpinnings to help us restructure our approaches to activity streams and communications options in ways that allow us to be social and somewhat private as we desire.
My sysadmin/poweruser friends like to tell me on one hand that email is secure and on the other that no one can own their email. These are contradictory claims that don’t click. The more hands an email passes through on it’s way to you, the less secure. The only way to deal with a broad set of communications agents is to send very open messaging protocols across many different environments, few of which you or even people you trust control. Email is about as secure as a post card left at Starbuck’s by the sugar.
Things that are thankfully not email have taken on emailish names but they are no more email that a locomotive is an iron horse (or more recently a Harley) or a car, a horseless carriage. And we are all better for that too.
Horses, mainframes, and very tall hats all have their times of glory. No more. I see the same for email as you now know it. It’s already at the edge of the dustbin of history; soon it will be like photo magazines and radio theatre — seen as a curiosity or in revivals.
One note to help bring insome other posts here in the #noemail category: Google Plus has begun to address many of the problems that I’ve been describing here. Hence a lot of posts here as Google Plus emerges and changes and as we all come to an understanding of how to help form its future. I fully expect that something more awesome than a simple partnership with Skype will be coming from Facebook soon. And I can’t believe that there will be only two players, Google and Facebook, fighting this out.
Two different former students from two different decades asked recently, “When you started #noemail, did you know that Google was going to release Plus? And how did you know what Plus would do?” Somewhere embedded in the questions is: “Did Google give you some kind of head’s up about Plus?”
My guess was that someone would do something serious to work on messaging and radically reduce the centricity of email. I knew that Facebook and Google both had projects aiming at changing the way social and messaging work. Of course, there were and are several other players working in the same areas. When I started thinking about #noemail seriously last summer just before hearing of Sheryl Sandberg’s talk at the Nielsen conference, I had already seen the software infrastructure in place or ready to be put into place with projects mentioned in this blog in the early parts of the #noemail category and in interviews with OpenSource.com and Reesenews.org. HTML5 + JSON were just too powerful and too promising to anyone interested in integrating activity streams and changing messaging.
Then as you noticed in my classes especially the one in Fall 2009, I’ve been very interested in an emerging literacy powered by vernacular video. Google+ out Skyped Skype on that — leaving out the shared screen and telephone Skype-out parts, but doing a better job of group chats and video sharing.
All this said, Google+ is only in limited field trial and will be changing as the Googlers see how we use it, how we work around the constraints, and how we define the communities and communications uses.
I expect to see something like visible Circles or cooperatively managed Circles or something to help groups communicate better — perhaps an integration of Reader+Groups with a Plus and Circles spin to it. Services to Groups (of the Facebook type rather than the Google Groups type) missing now and was done as a hack early on in Friendster, then in MySpace, then in Facebook, before each added the feature belatedly. Integration and/or a refinement of Google Groups would be one way to get there pretty quickly.
The most pressing question for me is: can we run a class in the fall using Google+ instead of other services? Groups of some sort would help on that a lot.
What Google+ has done for or to me after 5 weeks of #noemail is to answer a lot of the questions that I was trying to raise. I already am enjoying the aspects of Plus enough that I’m not upset about the learning curve and the advent of a new service.
No, I’m not returning to email as a result of Plus. Just to opposite. I may never use email again.
I’m quoted about #noemail at in the Triangle Business Journal. The article by Olivia Barrow talks about “[College and University - pj] Administrators embracing social media to reach out.” As you’ll see, I try to push the idea of interactivity rather than broadcast and of social media over email. No surprised here. I wish I could read the article but it requires a subscription and is mostly behind a paywall.
Paul Jones, a UNC journalism professor, says that although many university departments use social media, they do not put a lot of energy into having interactions with their audiences.
“The real question about whether it’s social or not is whether there’s any interaction that happens, either with them or as a result of what you put out,” Jones says.
For Jones, who wrote the code for UNC’s email service [more correctly good parts of good parts of some email services - pj], social media is the next step in the evolution of communication.
“I think university email has been obsolete,” he says. Jones no longer communicates via email. Send him an email, and an automatic reply will point you to 14 different social media sites as ways to get in touch with him.
“Tech has moved on,” he says. “It’s like horses — this is a world better built for cars. This is a world that works much better for other varieties of social interaction.”
Middle thing first, my colleague Barbara Wildemuth and myself spoke separately to WRAL-TV’s Brian Schrader aka @wraltraffic for a story about #noemail. Barbara only likes to use email and then only from her office and only during work hours. She has strong self-discipline and no smart phone. Me? Always with the iPhone. My self-discipline? Not so much.
Brian and his pal shot the footage on June 30 with Google + only a few hours old. So a lot has changed in the #noemail space since then — Facebook’s *awesome* announcement (see below) and my own better understanding of Google + for starters.
Speaking of those changes in the #noemail space. Google+ Hangouts are wonderful. I’ve had several very good experiences with Hangouts and several abortive attempts at Facebook+Skype. Hangouts most always work seamlessly.
In one three-way video chat, Howard Rheingold was sitting in his garden in Mill Valley, CA, Dan Gillmor was riding down the New York Expressway online from his G3 phone tethered to his laptop and I was here in my office in Chapel Hill. We did experience some stalls and stutters from Dan’s stream, but overall the quality of the video and of the content was excellent.
Twice, I’ve been disappointed by Facebook Video. Lilyn Hester and I had absolutely no problem doing a HangOut, sharing video from YouTube, etc. But when we tried Facebook Video Chat each of our sessions dropped the camera of the other causing us to restart the sessions and get mostly nowhere.
In another session with someone else, the Facebook+Skype software was tossed in her anti-virus sandbox. Confusion ensued. This was with a very experienced native app Skype user.
HangOut also allowed me to meet with Luis Suarez aka @elsua who has the #noemail lead with nearly four years of ignoring email and using social media instead. Luis’ Living in a World Without Email project #lwwe has been an inspiration and a guide to me. Luis was in Spain and I sadly still here in Chapel Hill.
I was able to alert Luis to two sick, in a cool way, browser extensions for Google +, Google+Facebook and Google+ Tweet. As you might guess from the names, each adds the activity stream from the respective service as a tab on your G+ tool bar (across the top). You could do something similar with browser tabs, but it’s nice to have everything right there in a single window.
Christy Schoon of Newsgator describes how that company celebrates #NoEmail on #SocialFridays in her Driving Adoption for Social Computing Technology: Kill Your Email. There’s a PR tone to the article but it contains several helpful hints on how a company can encourage the use of social media across the enterprise. As @elsua and I said laughingly during our Hangout, #SocialFridays are the gateway to #noemail and the gateway out of Email Hell.