Several articles have come out in the past few weeks that each in their own way offer complaints about too many demands put on all of us by that old folk demon, email. While each identifies at least some of the problems with email or uses email to some extent as a stand in for information overload or for American overwork (see chart from The Atlantic below), none really offers any solution other than to explain how you should control your email usage, you should not let it dominate your life, you should take time away from devices that give you access to email.
As per usual, most all offer a list of how one should behave. If you behave in these ways, all will be well they promise. There are two problems with this approach: First, no one can follow a set of seven plus productivity rules with any consistency for any long period of time. Second, even if you were to be able to do so, the habits and expectations of others and the practices baked into the technological infrastructure that is email would eventually overtake you.
I’m not a technological determinist, but the technologies must and are changing. Yes I want more change more control and more channels. I am not in any way advocating a return to some falsely imagine email eden. Nor do I think as some do that getting rid of email will change our social tendency to look, perhaps too anxiously, for more and more information or to bind ourselves to our celebrated overwork ethic. I hope we do address those problems. And I hope that as technologists, we can continue to develop more and more appropriate communications and messaging technologies that are (at this point in time): highly collaborative, mobile preferred, whitelisted, terse, quick, highly interactive, context appropriate, available to all devices, and with highly manageable and customizable communications streams
With Labor Day approaching, two Thompsons (Derek in The Atlantic and Clive in The New York Times) explain that we are overworked. Email is the culprit as the titles of the articles tell us. First Derek’s “The Joys and Sorrows of Late-Night Email” gives its secret away in the URL “email-is-killing-us”; there are no joys to be had. We are tethered and sorrowful. We spend too much time even during our work hours “monitoring” our work. “We are doing this to ourselves,” Derek tells us. But there is little offered in the way of relief.
These changes canít happen through personal behavior: The policy needs to come from the top. (If your boss regularly emails you a high-priority question at 11 p.m., the real message is, ďAt our company, we do email at midnight.Ē) And some changes may seem like matters of housekeeping, but have major repercussions, like keeping a separate email box for your personal messages. You canít ignore your work inbox if thatís also the place where friends send you weepy accounts of their breakups.
For Clive, WE are not the problem as individuals, but as a socially and professionally dysfunctional society WE are the problem.
As someone who has followed this practice for over 3 years now, I applaud her and welcome her to #noemail. Each new semester, I give my students a #noemail lecture as a way to encourage them to think differently and more effectively about their communication technology usage.
But where, briefly, I differ from Dr. Duvall is that I am very happy to communicate, to interact, to carry my phone, to avoid departmentalization of my time. Pads, pods and lappys are all fine in class in many contexts — not all classes at all times of course.
The #noemail goal isn’t to regress or reject technology but to move to more appropriate technologies leaving the losers, like email, behind.
Let a thousand interactions bloom! But let none of them be email.
Two completely different takes on email and #noemail came out last week. They are bookends to the ongoing discussion about how to communicate effectively. One looking backwards and arguing for an imagined utopia; one looking forward (or at least in the present) and arguing for better interactions and better productivity.
Knoll acknowledges that email is hard to avoid for external interactions (but not impossible I quickly add), but that email culture can be replaced by learning to: Ask Questions, Share Information (using Hackpad), Passing Around Files (using Dropbox, Slack and Trello), Asking for Feedback (Hackpad), ToDo Lists (again Trello), Notifications (Slack), and Reporting to Others (WorkingOn).
All and all, a useful medium length post of a self-conducted best practices in communications amongst knowledge workers and coders with real results. Recommended.
That time when you were about 16 – 26 is that only time that music has been really really good. Probably several other things fit in that same category and time. For Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic, email is one of those things. Just like some one in his 40s explaining the music of his youth to death, Madrigal overexplains email and converts no one in his article “Email is still the best thing on the Internet.” If it’s so great why is email being abandoned and reengineered? Kids! Listen up! According to Madrigal: “Email was a newsfeed, was one’s passport and identity, was the primary means of direct social communication, was a digital package-delivery service, was the primary mode of networked work communication.” I mean WAS. But is no more. Kids-these-days with their Instagram, their WhatsAp, their Snapchat, their WhateverElseIsCool, they just don’t get it. They should rediscover email — and buy vinyl while they are at it.
Most of Madrigal’s article nostalgizes email, but even at that he does get something right. Whatever replaces email in whatever forms — including I agree Instagram, SnapChat etc — would be better for the customers and better for their companies in the long run if there were open standards for such services. Yes, I plan to make that case in October at the 13th annual WWW/Internet Conference in Porto, Portugal.
This past two weeks brought to my attention four challengers to email overload and a promise of more #noemail alternatives. The three applications, like many emerging alternatives, attempt to include mobile friendliness, terse messaging (sometimes with stickers or visuals), highly interactive communication and context appropriateness.
Charleston SC’s Post-Courier interviews Twitpics founder, Noah Everett, as he challenges email with Pingly. Okay not so much challenges as offers a delay of sorts. Pingly is said to come “from the phrase ‘Ping me’ (send me an email later.)” And in a display of tortured syntax: “We’re building basically from the ground up a brand new email service.” If someone is on your Pingly whitelist, their messages get marked as important. Despite the hype, Pingly is really an interactive whitelist management system for your inbox. Not #noemail.
Meanwhile, TechCrunch’s MG Siegler aka @parislemon, who himself did a brief #noemail stint, looks at signals from Twitter about extending their DM feature as an email killer. Siegler promises or predicts only a maiming of email in his title, but he opines and predicts and wishes from much more. I do too. DMs are one of my favorite features of Twitter, a back channel to the public Tweet Stream (as Siegler also notes and loves). An additional shared passion we share is for the forced terseness of Twitter communications: “But wait, Twitter DMs are only 140 characters, that will never work! In the context of email, that would very much be a feature not a bug.” But remember this article isn’t about what is now available so much as a wish list for Twitter developers.
I haven’t yet tested, Slack, which The Verge hypes as an email killer in an interview with founder Stewart Butterfield. Butterfield, himself has been #noemail for over 4 years (he says), so we can expect some insight here as well as a working product. Slack was developed, not coincidentally, about 4 years ago as a chat tool for Massive Multiuser Online games (MMO) — where terseness, interactivity, whitelists, and context control are essential. So far so good. Even better, Slack integrates communications across applications. As Butterfield says “Itís all your communication in one place, instantly searchable, and available wherever you go” or in market-speak “Itís a messaging and search platform that creates a single unified archive accessible through powerful search.” Despite the promise of #noemail, Butterfield hedges his bets by offering to integrate email into Slack in the future. In doing so, he repositions Slack from an email killer or an alternative communications integration play. The sort of Swiss Army Knife with too many specialized blades to fit into your pocket.
Vergers talk about Slack mostly loving the search but also talking about teams using Slack. And rightly dissing email.
Washington Post writer, Brigid Schulte, gets to Mailbox Zero and tells you how. Like getting into Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Well, a little more that that. Schulte proposes a set of practices that will, if followed with discipline, at least reduce your inbox size if not enhance your life. If you are anxious enough to be disciplined. What we know about people, just look at your desk clutter for a second, is that more than a few of us have that kind of self-discipline. And we look askant at those who do, seeing them as OCD or just anal. Not that Schulte’s practices are bad ones. They are very good. But they are also just simple common sense productivity practices whether in regards to email or to any other business task that can overwhelm you.