November 25, 2008
While I've always practiced reasonable email hygiene, for the last 6 months I've been in near-constant email bankruptcy mode. This concerns me.
Yes, it's partly my fault for being a world champion procrastinator, but I'm not sure it's entirely my fault. There are forces at work here, factors that easily outstrip the efforts of any one measly human being, no matter how tenacious and dogged. Or, as in my case, no matter how lazy.
I've always liked Merlin Mann's explanation of this phenomenon:
Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble.
But it doesn't take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that's taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. For the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can't handle that one tiny thing. "What 'pile'? It's just a f**ing pebble!"
The underlying problem is that individual human beings don't scale.
The net number of requests for my attention exceeds my ability to provide that attention by at least an order of magnitude. And the disparity around my ability to thoughtfully respond to my pile may be ten or more times worse still. The scale is insanely out of whack.
Email is certainly the backbone of the information economy, but it's also fundamentally and perhaps even fatally flawed. Tantek elik captured my thoughts perfectly with this post:
Last year when I posted The Three Hypotheses, they helped me explain why I found email so much less useful/usable than instant messaging (IM) and Twitter. Since then, I find that while I can keep up with more people contacting me over IM and following more people on Twitter, email has simply become less and less usable. But not for reasons of interface; I'm using the email application now as I was a year ago.
I'm probably responding to less than 1 in 10 emails that are sent directly to me, and even fewer that were sent to a set of people or a list. The usability of email for me has deteriorated so much that I exclaimed on Twitter: EMAIL shall henceforth be known as EFAIL.
The blanket equation of email with failure is strong language indeed, but it's a serious problem. The intrinsically low effort-to-reward ratio of private email is not necessarily a new idea; as I said in When In Doubt, Make It Public, it's almost never in anyone's best interest to keep their communications locked into private silos of any kind, email or otherwise. Why answer one person's email directly when I could potentially answer a thousand different people's email with a single blog post?
I urge you to read the full text of Tantek's article. He cuts to the heart of the email problem: size, in both the mental and physical dimensions.
Email requires more of an interface cognitive load tax than instant messaging. People naturally put much more into an email, perhaps in an unconscious effort to amortize that email interface tax overhead across more content. People feel that since they are already "bothering" to write an email, they might as well take the time to go into all kinds of detail, perhaps even adding a few more things that they're thinking about.
Such natural message bloat places additional load on the recipient, both in terms of the raw length of the message, and in terms of the depth and variety of topics covered in the email. This results in a direct increase in processing time per email, making it even harder for people to process and respond. I know I've let numerous emails grow stale because there were simply too many different things in the email that required a response. I didn't want to send a response without responding to everything in the email because then I would inevitably receive yet another email response without being able to file the original as being processed and thus have the situation worsen!
What we can to combat the email = efail problem? Take Tantek's advice: whenever possible, avoid sending email. Not because we don't want to communicate with our peers. Quite the contrary. We should avoid sending email out of a deep respect for our peers -- so that they are free to communicate as effectively and as often as possible with us.
- Channel that private email effort into a public outlet. Discussion boards, blog entries, comments, wikis, you name it. If it can be indexed by a web search engine, you're in the right place -- and many more people can potentially find, answer, and benefit from that information.
- If you must send email, make it as short as possible. Think of it as Strunk and White on speed. Can you reduce your email into a single paragraph? How about two sentences? How about just the title field with no body, even?
- Remember the theory of communication escalation. Email is just one communication tool in our toolkit; that doesn't mean it is always the right one for whatever situation is at hand. Take advantage of phone calls, instant messaging, text messages, and so forth, as appropriate. Scale your choice of communication method to the type of conversation you're having, and don't be afraid to escalate it (or demote it!) as the ebb and flow of the conversation shifts.
So if you've emailed me, and I haven't responded in a timely fashion, I apologize. I know it may sound crazy, but I've been desperately clawing my way out from under this mountain of pebbles.
p.s. Email me if you agree with this.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
It's not us, it's you!
Stop being popular!
Stop being smarter!
If you're asking more than 1 question in an email, discard it and pick up the phone!
My gmail inbox says
13747 unread emails.
I am not stressed about it and I am not going to clean it up.
The time it takes to delete email is about the same as reading it so I just watch the messages as they hit my phone. If it looks important I might open it.
You have to treat email like you would im or you will go insane.
The main problem with any particularly lengthy e-mail conversation is that you can usually cover the same ground in a 2-minute phone call.
I think the same about people who waste dozens of dollars sending SMS messages back and forth. Particularly teenagers who use it exactly as they use IM (sending a SMS saying hi and waiting for a reply before sending another saying what's up?).
@BCS: I love you for mentioning NNTP.
Have you considered installing a regular forum at http://www.codinghorror.com/forum/? Then, link to that forum prominently through your blog. Your die hard fans can answer 90% of questions for you. If people ask you a question via email, you can auto-reply with please post to the forum.
I realize you're very busy and I appreciate it that much more that you have replied to every email I've sent you. Thank you very much. I've been reading your blog for years. It's a good feeling that you take the time to acknowledge the people who spend so much time acknowledging you.
You just have been spammed! ;)
Kinda fits topic...
I agree to a certain extent. The fact that there are more and more companies who have to introduce corporate email writing and handling rules (including tips like three points you state at the end of your article) shows that the email-issue creates productivity problems indeed. Another funny fact is that psychologists have started talking about email induced stress, the role of email in burnout and even emailophobia (don't remember the correct name which has to be ancient greek ;).
On the other hand I think to quite some extent it's also a matter of how you deal with email, what client you use, what features of this client, how you train your senders/recepients (by keeping your writing style), how well you make use of the subject line (@all, @kent, FYI, REQUEST, TASK COMPLETED, etc.)
Please don't encourage people to send e-mails with a question in the subject-line and no body-text...
That's like listening to music on TDK SA60's
Sounds like I might be a candidate for email bankruptcy myself. My inbox has 404 unread messages, which, if only they knew, would be nicely appropriate for those waiting for a response. Clearing it is marked as urgent on my to-do list, but it's still 4th item on the list :(
I think I see the primary source of this failure:
People naturally put much more into an email, perhaps in an unconscious effort to amortize that email interface tax overhead across more content. People feel that since they are already bothering to write an email, they might as well take the time to go into all kinds of detail, perhaps even adding a few more things that they're thinking about.
That's just about the WORST email writing strategy possible!
I like email, because I can take 30 minutes to write one. 5 minutes to compose an email that might meet the above description, and 25 minutes to slash, hack, edit, restructure and distill it down to a potent essence that gets all of the critical details across.
I quit IMing because I thought it was poisoning my ability to write. I'm not interested in your stream-of-consciousness... you should have to think about what you want to say and then carefully compose it with an eye toward not wasting my time.
So yeah, email written like an IM = fail. But I don't get it -- what's wrong with a high-quality email chain, and how is an IM conversation better?
Hey Now Jeff,
Email could be Efail.
Coding Horror Fam,
The main problem with any particularly lengthy e-mail conversation is that you can usually cover the same ground in a 2-minute phone call.
The main problem with any particularly lengthy e-mail conversation is that you can usually cover the same ground in a 2-minute phone call.
Sometimes, but not always. At least with e-mail I've got a record of what was asked and when it was asked - which has saved my bacon many times. I've been burnt on too many phone meetings to not want to channel as much through e-mail, etc. as I can.
@Schmoo: And yet you spend your time commenting on random blog posts? :)
But you have that nice pretty pink netbook now. You should be able to keep up with my spam from anywhere and in style.
I use email almost entirely when I want a response from someone and don't care when I get it.
I think a lot of the problems with email stem from the design of email clients. It's impossible to skim a series of email messages in Outlook (though not, thanks to the short descriptions after the subject, in Gmail) and it's a hassle to tell the computer you don't care about the message, requiring at minimum two clicks.
It'd be nice to have an email client with an ignore gesture - swipe the mouse pointer over an area of the screen, and all the messages are marked as read.
@Patrick - Well one of the problems with email is people like you, whose reading comprehension apparently sucks. Read the article again and figure out exactly what is being said. It is the amount of time and effort put into exactly these types of emails you describe that ends up burying people with it.
And whether or not That's the worst email strategy possible is true, it's exactly what people do, it's not like Jeff said Email is ruining my life, please advise. It's a common problem that affects most people who have jobs that don't allow them the luxury of a half an hour spent per email response.
I've been battling towards Inbox Zero for well over a year... the closest I've gotten is 6 messages. After busting my ass this week, I'm down from 24 to 16. I'm hoping to nearly knock it out this weekend with the holiday. A rigorous filing effort has kept things moving nicely.
Anyway, one of the way I was able to filter out those little annoying messages was AwayFind - http://www.awayfind.com/ It makes sure the important things still get through to me and let me ignore the rest until I can deal with it.
My inbox currently has zero unread emails. I just dealt with everything I received overnight. (Mostly customer requests for bug fixes, new features, and that kind of thing). It took me an hour, but now I have the rest of the day to ignore incoming communication and get some actual coding done.
If you IM with clients all day, when do you actually get any coding done?
I need a few minutes just to get thinking about the problem I'm currently trying to resolve. If an IM arrives every couple of minutes (and that's entirely possible since I'm actively working with 5 clients right now), then I'm reacting all day and I'd never get anything done.
I rarely answer my phone as well. I let it go to voicemail and respond on my schedule.
Its the only way I can get real concentrated work done.
I don't like IM. I quit MSN years ago, and never looked back. IM distracts me when I'm working; email waits until I'm ready. Twitter seems like a horrible nightmare to me - thousands of people's thoughts just popping up whenever they're ready to share their wisdom with the world.
Email is manageable if it's written correctly, which I agree is the problem. If someone sends you an email asking too much - just answer the core of it and let them ask another question if necessary!
I agree with Patrick above - I don't want to hear your babbling stream of consciousness, I want a sensible composed message. And if you ask the wrong question... You get the wrong answer.
Surely that's better than the hundreds of unread emails people are describing?
Use the appropriate communication medium
Message you need to compose, edit and refine before you send it : use email
Message you need to send now! - Use IM, Telephone, etc
Message you need to send for everyone to read whenever they are ready : Blog
People who use email for everything are the same ones who send 30MB files by email ....
E-mail has a big advantage over IM that people like to forget:
When someone IMs me, I might be very busy and just have no time to take care of his request right now. Actually two peoples living on the opposite side of the earth have a huge problem finding a time frame that is suitable for both sides to chat.
E-mail, on the other hand, knows no such problem. I can send a mail when I have time myself to write it and the person on the other end can reply to it when he has time to do so. We can both stay within our own schedule and do things when we have the time for it without having to take the schedule of the other side into account. When I reply to it, he will read the reply when he has time to do so and not when I send the mail.
Also I can decide to not reply to an e-mail at all. It would be very impolite to just ignore an IM message in the same way! That is why so many people are actually connected to an IM network, but make their status hidden, so nobody sees that they are online.
Regarding 1. Channel that private email effort into a public outlet.
I cannot emphasize this one enough. At my company, they use mailing lists to communicate for the various projects. All the PMs and developers (supposedly) monitor their list and respond semi-officially to things.
There are two MAJOR problems with this method:
1. Sheer email volume across the whole company. I read maybe 10% of the messages across the 15 mailing lists, but I have to subscribe to get them at all.
2. I started working here in July. That means that I have a knowledge base that only starts in July. I can't search on anything prior to when I started and subscribed to the lists. I'm an SE, so random customer questions about some deprecated feature consume much more time than they should because I have to ask another SE who has been here for 4 yrs to look in his stash. If we can't find it, we ask the list. I can't count how many times I've asked a question and gotten mildly chastised for repeating a question. I always respond saying I'm fairly new and have only seen the list for x months (and that I searched it first).
Again, internal message boards are the way to go (IMO) for these kinds of things. Everyone can post, everyone can answer, and the info goes nowhere. Everyone has an equal chance to search that info to find an answer.
Jaster nailed it. Like much in life, it's all about using the appropriate tool for the task.
Email not scaling when you're a popular blogger, though - I can see that =)
Wow. This is the first post of yours that I've read that I *totally* disagree with.
I obviously don't deal with the daily email totals that you do, but I'm sure that the busiest days of my projects get into the same range, and I've never had difficulty keeping up. For me, Email is an asynchronous task list. My INBOX is my todo list. Nothing leaves my inbox until it's dealt with, and it's almost always nearly-empty. There are occasionally 2-3 things I need to think about more, but everything else is either
a) acted on (either go do the task or reply with a question/answer)
b) filed forever. (I don't delete anything, but if I did, this is where you do it from.)
There is no middle ground. There's no do later pile.
Now, on the user interface standpoint, you need to learn your keyboard shortcuts. Most IM clients fail, here. It takes longer for me to find a name in an IM list than it does to create a new email and send it. I don't use the mouse unless I have to, and if you learn that, your interface complaints will be gone, too.
@Jonas: Yep. And checking back to read other people's comments, too. define(_self, 'numpty');
Now I'll be waiting for the blog post describing Twitter's inability to scale as following 427 feeds and receiving dozens of @ replies results in a total communication breakdown...
Tatally agree with you. Whenever i am away for say a few weeks holiday, my mailbox is spilling over. I try to keep a constant eye on mail though and organise usually every t2o/three days.
Ow, and I am now using xobni, a great mail datamining tool (i know, sick right, actually needing to datamining your email :-S), and it's free!
Can you reduce your email into a single paragraph? How about two sentences?
John Gruber normally responds in two words, which is pretty much spot on.
I can imagine Tantek has an issue with this, because he gets loads of e-mail. Thankfully I don’t, because no-one knows who I am. The idea that every e-mail should be responded to is sweet, but most e-mails have a person behind them.
Just like you don’t have to talk to a random person who approaches you on the street, you don’t have to reply to random e-mails, and I think it’s okay to say that.
Then again, as I say, I haven’t faced this problem myself.
What we can to combat the email
What can we do to combat the email
I had 777 unread messages last week. Tell me it's not evil...
I may be behind in the times, but I still use e-mail as my primary means of communication (even with my wife, though I'd say that is NOT a good thing). I do not use Twitter or even an IM service, though my e-mail responses are as quick as though they had been IMs or tweets. Though I do not receive the same volume of e-mails as a popular blogger, I do have a substantial amount working in the software industry. I guess I just don't understand how a person could get so far behind in their e-mails that they would have to spend so much time playing catch-up. If you are consistent in your response times, replying the moment you receive/notice an e-mail (the same as you usually would do an IM or a tweet), you should never build up such an enormous backlog.
Then again, I've got over 40 voicemails that are at least a month old.. should have e-mailed me!
Can't say I have the same problem. I like email and don't get too much of it, but I'm not any sort of web celebrity or high ranking employee either. Most of my communication at work is through IM, which is quicker because you don't have to wait minutes to get through. But it's nice to have the record email provides... I can't count the number of times I've had to go back and look something up out of an old email.
I feel like Twitter is rather limiting... words aren't so bad, but they seem to think so.
In the military, we have to take operational security into account, so email remains the (unfortunately) best option. Most people cut through the fluff to make it work. One line (or one word) responses are usually the norm, and the time flexibility allows problems to be resolved even when there are four time zones involved, with an 11-hour separation between the most distant one. To cut through my own fluff, brevity is key.
Surely the plural of Hypothesis isn't Hypotheses but Hypothesii..
Just a plug for my favorite email replacement: News Groups, as in NNTP (the close relative of SMTP). IT's got all the advantages of E-Mail (in a proper client it actual looks like e-mail) and it's public and (depending on how people run there servers) reasonably permanent. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NNTP
re: Email = Efail, email is just a tool, and like any tool can be used effectively, or misused. Most of the time, when a tool is misued, it's not the tool that's at fault.
We just need to learn how to use email effectively, which will differ for each circumstance. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to just delete them, whether read or unread. Other times, a short reply is called for. And then there are times when a well thought out, composed response is required.
Pre-processing rules help with this a lot. Outlooks sorts my incoming emails into categories, and then I go through those categories when I have time to think about those particular items.
I am also quick to delete anything that I know does not require a response.
There are ways to deal with email. However, a big part of that would be discouraging people from sending you email you don't want. For me, a good way to do that is to have three email addresses. One for work, one for home and one for registering at sites that you know will spam you.
Anything that I actually pay for goes in my home emails. Anyone sending to the wrong email address can either be ignored or politely asked to send them somewhere else.
Of course, publicly posting your email address on the web changes everything.
@Robert - don't understand the hostility, but that aside:
When a coworker comes to me with a question, he is interrupting my flow. I am going to make a judgment: Is this guy wasting my time? How much of his own time did he invest first?
Did he look into the history, find the related bug reports, read the documentation and the code to get the facts and background? In other words, has he correctly arrived at THE QUESTION? The question he cannot answer but I can? And is the question clear, pure, well-formed, and ready for my answer? Or do I have to sort it out of a muddled jumble? I don't care if it's an email, phone call, or pop-in, he's got to spend the time getting ready to ask for my time.
If not, he is wasting my time to save his own, and I will take note of this.
Doing his homework before bothering me isn't a luxury, it's his damn job.
I don't see how some off-the-cuff incomplete-context IM that jerks me out of what I'm doing is a good use of anyone's time.
Now, there is such a thing as a ping where this coworker is trying to save 2 hours of his time in exchange for 30 seconds of mine, but those are not the sprawling emails decried above.
If you need to write a sprawling email, you NEED to spend 30 minutes on it. It's both disrespectful and unlikely to get results otherwise.
Do I sound like much of a curmudgeon? Well I am, to the people wasting my time. To the people who don't, I am that guy who goes the extra mile to get the full complete backstory and make sure the issue we're tackling is well understood and being handled in the best way.
Will it be good to enable email application like outlook to autoreply each email with the time elapsed after the user has last responded and the number of unread emails in the inbox... info on the current emails position in the queue. What do you think?
Scale your choice of communication method to the type of conversation you're having
I agree with that one, the rest is BS.
Have you read the four hour work week? It has a great take on email, basically only check it twice a day at most, 11:00am and 4:00pm.
Also, Yammer is a great way to get people to use less email.
Good luck in your email filtering.
This is very, very true. I haven't sent an email in a year or so from my email account - it's redundant for me, to be honest. Everyone I want to talk to I talk to using Instant Messengers.
Don't forget the classic endorsement of email:
I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I'd used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. - Donald Knuth
I can't imagine moving my email communications to public forums. While that works if your business is writing a web browser or public web service (like you two) and you want to discuss that, it doesn't work so well for the rest of us.
A lot of my friends and family have no cell phone, have never heard of Twitter, don't read blogs, and/or only check email once or twice a week. USENET would be as valuable as IM.
Hypothetically, if everybody I know used Twitter / cellphones / the same IM network, then sure, that might be less mental overhead. But it's a boil-the-ocean solution: once you add on remember what network I have to use to contact $NAME, email is easier. I write short quick emails, and I never have an IM client open when I'm trying to do work, so they're equal, apart from the fact that IM does a much worse job of organizing past messages.
the river pebble metaphor is good.
Email can still be effective with certain people. Maybe its similar to personal conversation, in that it works well, when it does, but its often prone to impedance mismatch, which causes frustration.
It seems like you're essentially blaming the messenger here. You have email building up, but how many of those emails would be conversations, or phone calls resulting in post-it notes should email cease to exist?
I have no problem with my normal emails, I respond to every one right when I get it and overall it saves time as I don't have to deal with the person asking a ton of follow up questions or anything like that.
The only ones that build up are tasks which require me to change some code, or write something new. Those would build up anyway, regardless of the medium.
Maybe you're buried not because you're getting email, but because you have too much work to do.
I've been in this boat and really appreciate the pebbles analogy from Merlin. While it's often not enough, I've found that batching email (i.e., Inbox Zero / GTD approaches) is a big help. The key is to focus on email at one specific time (maybe twice per day) and then not check it the rest of the time. However, to do that effectively one needs a separate task list than their email...otherwise there will inevitably be things that just sit in one's inbox and waste our mental energy every time we see and don't deal with them. So yeah, task list = key. And inbox task list.
A few people forwarded me this post, and Keith Casey mentioned he used AwayFind. It's a little tool I built to help people batch email (i.e., not check it all the time) but still get notified via SMS if there's an emergency (without giving out one's cell phone.). That's the extent of my pitch, but feel free to try it at http://awayfind.com, the free version is all you'd likely need.
I don't think email = efail, because I don't think email is a technology problem. Like most people here have been sharing, it's a matter of how we write emails and how we deal with them. We've got a long way to go in learning both sides of that, but hopefully we can get the word out to the people we work with sooner than later so that we can actually achieve inbox zero from time to time.
i rarely recieve email from human beings. my email is for news letters bulletins and updates. i get pissed off to find social drivel in my mailbox!! cousin so and so saying hi. dad saying to fix the friggin light bulb and such like.
however, until i gave up on the infantile shinanigans on SO, i found that jeff responded to EACH AND EVERY EMAIL i sent!!! and this despite me mailing from a gmt offset of 9hrs!!! jeff, you rock at email response.
Shame on you Jeff, such a lazy sweeping generalisation of email. You missed so many useful points of email, especially that is offers a nice audit trail for covering your arse (especially in a corporate environment!). What about keeping attached items in the context they were sent, efail? Ediot more like it!
Sure, you can get a lot of pebbles, but doesn't everybody?
IM has a critical mass before it becomes an unusable platform and Twitter is ok for nothing more than short status updates.
I have to disagree with you on this one Jeff, is there a bigger problem here?
Emails for the most part is an information thread or tasklisk that is required of you. If you feel like you are falling behind, perhaps you are taking on more that you can handle?
I don't understand, why you even ask for more email?
Also rss-feeds are sometimes too heavy. I have 1000+ news in one of my news feeds that I should read. It is always 1000+, because I don't have time to read as much news as news people produce them. In fact, I don't have time to even read the titles.
I use GMail and Google Reader. They have been very good, and integrated with a link.
One more tip: no rich text. Keep it old-fashioned: just plain Ascii text (although if your language requires it, you may use accented characters). No bold. No italic. No fonts. No tables.
That way you can focus on the message, and indeed keep it short, thus, keeping away from making it too long.
It's only yesterday that I last sent a mail to an old-fashioned mailing list, first time in a long while, and it hit me how fast and smoothly it went.
@Patrick - Apologies for the harsh remarks, it was morning and I was busy clearing out the 100 or so messages that had accumulated in my inbox overnight... also the coffee machine broke.
What you are describing is a perfect world, where people do their research and their homework and don't bother you with trivial questions... but it happens, and it happens a lot. We don't work in bubbles and people are expected to collaborate and share information. And if it takes an hour of my time to save someone else 4 hours of digging through documentation, then there is a net gain to the team. It may annoy me, but we've collectively come out ahead.
On top of all this is what we call the dreaded email trail. I may be involved in 5 projects with conversations flying around between Analysts, PMs, BAs, Testers etc. (And everyone 'Replies All')... BUt I'm still expected to stay current with the goings on. In this case, a Wiki or a newsgroup or a forum or whatever is CLEARLY a superior method of sharing information than is email.
This whole blog post is absurd. Faulting email because you are now flooded is just silly. Email continues to work fine for me, so it's obviously not email that's broken. In fact, I've stopped any form of IM since it's a productivity killer.
When your situation changes then you must change with it. You'll have to change the way you deal with things, and that may include shifting to new tools. And the situation you face may be new to you, but it's not new. In essence it's been around for a long time, and various successful ways of dealing with it have evolved. I'll leave it as an exercise for you to think of some. If you get stuck, just ask and I'll try to check back some time soon.
typo: What we can to combat
We also need to have important email address besides a normal one. To that important address only those we have permitted will have the right to write to. I mean, if we use white list, only the selected ones can email us.
You know what else failed ? Books. There are way too many of them for one person to read. Websites too. And forums. We should close them all down, since they are just becoming more and more.
Jeff, the reason lots of people contact you via email and not IM is because you posted your email on this page, but not your IM names. If you did, your IM would become as useless and flooded as your inbox. The reason your inbox is full is not because email sucks, it's because A LOT OF PEOPLE WANT TO TALK TO YOU.
IM and telephone instead of an email? So your force your recipient to react NOW, if it fits his time or not.
Going public instead of an email? So you share your company stuff with the whole world or your holiday planning with the rest of the department?
Btw a lot of my relatives, friends, and customers insist on using email to communicate. Avoiding email would mean avoiding comunicating with them.
@Jens, I'm with you. Most people write too many emails or IMs or Tweets because they a) don't have enough work to do, b) too many people with not enough work to do have their contact info!
Ok, but what happens in a large corporate setting - especially in a company with a young demographic? It seems like IM would become a productivity drain than a useful communication tool. IMs are much more intrusive/disruptive than email. In the case of Twitter, it seems like you have to do a lot of digging or searching to find the information you're after.
I think e-mail has its place. Short, sweet, and to the point emails can be very useful. If it's too hard to write an email, or it's going to take too long to write out, set up a meeting or have a phone call.
@Robert: The wiki idea is appealing, and we've played around with that at work. It hasn't really taken off, so I can't judge from experience. Have you used one in your job?
Your point about reply-all chains and the expectation that you're up on multiple projects is definitely something I struggle with, too.
But I think email is decent at that: I can prioritize/skim/ignore those chains if I am swamped, and then go back to the chain and play catch-up in short order if needed.
I defend email here only in relative terms, though. Email has problems, and it doesn't scale well. But I don't see how IMs and Twitter can replace them as the article (or at least the Tantek quote) seems to suggest.
No matter what the medium, effective communication that keeps you up to date on all those projects is going to take time and effort. Maybe THAT's what really doesn't scale well?
Anyone know any good tales of how a wiki was effectively used to replace email? I wonder about how that would play out.
One problem is that your observation and that of these other public personas are all hugely biased by the fact that you are public personas. Thus, you get a lot of email, a lot more than the average, and the ratio between received and sent is ridiculously high. For normal people, email is not necessarily broken.
Why would someone send a message to just one person when she could send it to thousands?? Well, maybe because she just needs to send a message to that one person, and nobody else will care. That's a pretty common situation :-)
My 2 cents.
The one thing hinted at but not directly said is not always just the mail that we receive that snows us under, it is the bulk of mail that we generate that comes back and bites us, just because it is so easy to send, ie its your own fault!
I blogged about this, but it took me a lot longer to say that there :-)
Very amusing post. I currently have 1107 unread emails in my inbox. I read about 10% of the junk I get on a daily basis. I set aside 3 periods in my day to scan, digest and respond to emails. What I find amusing is if the person sending it thinks it is earth shattering and I don't get to it immediately people will call me on the phone and ask Did you get my email?. My response is usually, Well if you pressed send, then yes I got it. Then we discuss whatever it was and that usually takes 4 minutes. Eventually my auto archive will get the older mail out of my box. Of course it bears mentioning that because of the department where I sit I am on 3 major distribution lists that have nothing to do with the job I do. And those lists have a tendency to just get hammered at times.
My major email annoyance is when people respond to an entire distribution list with Thanks! or with what is obviously individual communications back to the entire list. Or the never ending thread that slowly morphs into something completely different than the subject line states. Or somebody picks up a giant thread that you were never involved with in the first place, is months old and then references something like 50 or 60 responses ago and expects you to know what it is all about.
IM can be intrusive, however I use the status flag to let people know when I am busy. If I am marked as busy, I am and I do not respond until I get to a stopping point.
Same with the phone, if I am busy and it rings and it isn't one of my bosses then I will let it go to voice mail, and sometimes even if it is one of those bosses.
These communications tools are just that, if you allow them to rule your life they will and you can't ever get a decent amount of work done.
Email would be better if it were better organized.
This could be achieved manually if everyone with whom you correspond behaves according to some standard convention or etiquette... but they don't and they never will.
Subject lines, if provided at all, are often mostly meaningless.
The body may discuss multiple topics or issues.
Forwards and replies happen arbitrarily out of chronological order.
My office uses Outlook and Exchange. Like with many email systems emails can be organized into a hierarchy folders. Each email may go into only one folder.
This is a problem. Often messages should be classified to multiple folders such as a multiple intersecting projects, products, divisions, and departments.
Google's Gmail handles multiple folders (called labels) well. But, my iPhone does not--even when synchronizing with my Gmail account.
Gmail does a good job of organizing chains of email. But, it fails if the subject gets changed. So it's lose-lose. Either keep using the stupid, off-topic subject line, or lose the chain grouping.
Quick check here:
Private account: In: 4897, Out: 83.
Business account: In: 320, Out: 15.
Right, Jeff. That's even two orders of magnitude for my private conversation. ;)
The problem with IM is that I usually don't want to be disturb while I'm doing work (or playing a game) and IM almost means Instant mInterrupt with flashing icons and people waiting for responses in less than 10 seconds. Email on the other hand do not interrupt your workflow, you check your email when you want.
Twitter is the ideal communication method I think, but it could be improved a lot, for exemple I think I should be able to classify my posts on personal/work/other things (with some kind of tag system), so my friends don't get messages that I'm doing function X and my coworkers don't get messages that I'm going to get drunk tonight (unless someone really wants to see that). I also think that there should be twitter profiles that are not for people, but for subjects, and anyone that follows that subject can post on that twitter profile.
For exemple a Jeff could have a twitter for StackOverflow project which he and the other devs posts about the stuff they are doing about that project and another for his blog which he disserts about his new blog posts, maybe put comments responses on twitter
Couldn't disagree more. To me, email is perfectly useful, whereas IMs have been a useless annoyance whenever I tried them. And for the life of me, I can't see the point of twitter.
Email does not imply debt to me so there is no bankruptcy. I feel no moral imperative to answer email, the phone, the door.... These thing exist for my convenience to allow me an enhanced interface to the world. Part of this enhancement is the wall factor. Not all email is meant to be replied to nor is it inherently impolite to not answer email.
mind you I filter my email even after spam filters. Office newsletter goes directly into the bin. Important things get sent to a separate folder/label and skip my inbox entirely. These last are one of the few things I may feel obliged to take action on. Everything in my inbox is for my entertainment.
I think that what people fail to realise is that we need ot learn to filter. We have to learn it as children with regards to sight, sound, smell, touch...The same applies to any information/data source. It's not the email that failed.
IM and Twitter are the devil. If you use them, you'll decay your ability to formulate your thoughts in the written word. Email is much better.
Also, in a corporate setting, email has a gravitas that twitter doesn't.
Twitter: OMG, IBM, let's set up a meeting with Bill Gates!!!1!!1! -Intel
It also lends itself a lot better to creating a record of your communication with clients, so that if something goes critically wrong, you can CYA.
We won a lawsuit because they claimed I never mailed something to them -- I produced an email showing that I offered to fedex it to them, and they didn't respond (even though they responded to that email on a different point, so they couldn't claim they didn't read it). I can't imagine the same thing working (legally) in an IM context.
Not only e-mails, now we have discussion boards, blogs and blog comments to read as daily ritual as well.
We need some software to handle that. Fast!
Also, it pisses people off when you don't answer them on IM.
I come back to my computer to find:
All from one guy.
it's also harder to send spam via IM networks and Twitter-like services - sender is quickly reolved as a spammer and his account blocked.
You hit the nail on the head with the attention crash notion of our attention not scaling. For my teams, I've set the expectation that they need to use a sneaker filter to get emergencies into my attention zone.
This issue will not go away soon.
I only agree to extent that you get what you pay for and if you are willing to pay the lowest amount you deserve what you have paid for.
If you go to these sites and pay market rates I think you will find that you get good code by good coders.
I use oDesk all the time. Not because it allows you to actively see/monitor the programmers, but because it offers a broader sweap of providers.
Tree and others have said this already: with filters and labels, your inbox becomes an atomic-powered attention-management tool. If the subject is *truly* important someone actually appears at my desk or (crazy thought) sends me an email addressed to me PERSONALLY.
IM drives me nuts. It's the communication equivalent of a four-year-old tugging on your pantslegs Daddeee! Pay attention to meeee! I am too distractable already for that noise.
I especially love getting emails that say hey, get on IM! I have to ask you something. Dude, why aren't you asking me NOW?
Twitter is broadcast. On the OGM side, I never have anything that useful to say, and on the receiving end, it's basically mass IM with an opt-in. I could see this working for some people but again: I'm too distractable.
A thought: In the attention economy, posts like I get too much email sound a little like it's so hard to find good help these days. This is a GOOD problem, Jeff!
Well, I was pretty much agreeing with everything until the point that talked about using the subject line and leaving the body blank.
I tend to respond less to those sorts of emails. Should I replace the subject line with my answer in a reply? Or append my answer to the end of it perhaps?
I guess that the reason that this was mentioned was that it then makes it twitter-like, but don't do it kids.
I guess this really stems from when I used to use Outlook a lot - because I had the reading pane or whatever it was called open, I tended to end up looking at the body text before the subject.
We used to have an accounts woman that did this at previous job, and she got quite a bit of hate from the whole IT department for constantly doing this.
I also really dislike (maybe even more) emails where a question is asked in the subject and the body simply reads, 'So what do you think?', I guess for the same reason.
What I'm really trying to say is that email is bad and we shouldn't use it for communication ;o)
Am I the only one that does Ctrl-A, Ctrl-C on a big text field on web pages before I hit the submit button, just incase the submit fails and my text vanishes?
Maybe I'm awkward or something but methinks I'm in complete disagreement with this one, which is quite unusual as my train of thought seems to like yours on many past occasions.
Email, IM, and Twitter are three vastly differing technologies with vastly differing uses. The only failing point about Email comes down to the user side of things. I have several users whom think that the Deleted Items folder in outlook is a great place to store and manage their important documents, and other users who just do not get the whole idea that their 2GB mailbox being full is the reason they can't send or receive at the moment. All in all, email is perfectly manageable if the end-user is more aware of routine maintenance and organization.
Another thing most people tend to do is use email for IM or Twitter-like scenarios. For example they send to 50 different people or sling short emails back and fourth all afternoon.
Could you imagine how insane life would be if your entire corporate environment were on MSN or the likes? Scary thought really.
Bottom line is, that email is not an 'instant messaging' medium. It is way too robust for that. It is not Twitter either, it allows a much more granular control over the group whom can read it. I don't believe comparing any of these technologies as a replacement for the other is even remotely responsible in any way.
Jeff, I'm always impressed that you take the time to respond to your emails. I think it really speaks to your genuine character.
IM isn't so bad as many of you say, some IM-clients actually keeps a history and if you use Jabber you even get a central server that can keep the history so you won't risk that MS reads your top secret messages.
I still agree that IM can be a huge attention-drawer, especially if everyone has to say hi before they ask you something and then can't stop talking without feeling bad.
If used correctly(tm) though it can be realy useful. Use the same language you would in an email and don't expect to get a reply within 2seconds, but if you do and still need more information - take advantage of the chat-capabilities while you are both focused on the subject.
Some clients can use a BNC that is always online to receive messages while you are offline and when you feel like you have time to be disturbed you connect to the BNC and receive all pending messages and start chatting like normal. Most services even has offline-messages built in nowadays.
Carl, I'm even worse, I write forum-posts in notepad first and then paste them into the browser :D
I often encounter the following situation in my job:
1- Manager asks me to do something.
2 - I tell manager that that something is not the best way to do it and it will fail in specific ways
3 - Manager tells me to do it anyway
4 - I do it
5 - Manager calls me out once the failures I predicted occur
This happens like clockwork
If I have this whole thing in mail i'm covered. If not I get reprimanded.
Was this just another way of saying you're not going to answer anyone's email? :-p
Apart from spam I really like email. I like to get into the zone. I like asynchronous communication where I can decide when to read and answer. I like to think some things through before writing or answering.
IM, phone, chat, twitter have their value: if I need an answer instantly, from one person. If I want to invest into a personal relationship, or a group.
Blog, Wiki, website tend to be read less frequently and therefore are even more asynchronous then email - and have their value too. Large communities, the public, information persistency, ...
If only we were more capable and willing to use communication tools with care, I would not get the feeling that you are right with what you write. Email is a wonderful, powerful tool, if only we knew how to use it.
Glad to hear I'm not the only terrible procrastinator in the world. My natural fussiness with inbox neatness is the only thing that keeps me working effectively.
I keep my email entirely online, NONE comes to my outlook, i won't even configure it, because all the online email have pretty much unlimited storage. I can skim easily down the list seeing what might be important or not, and, I have different emails for different areas of interest, so level of importance is sort of already established.
I have made friends mad trying to politely point out that rather than the latest funny/cute chainspam, I would much rather just have an email from them saying Hi, was thinking of you, what's new?. The big time spammers usually say but if you look beneath the silliness you will see the person just wanted to let you know they were thinking of you and wanted to touch base, but didn't really have the energy or time to compose a letter!
Well OK then I'd rather have an email that says EXACTLY that than have to take MY time and energy on a long piece of spam that often wants me to send it to all my friends and back to the sender to show love.
WHAT KINDA LOVE IS THAT? Gee,helping to create exactly the problem this article addresses does not feel like love to ME!
A well thought out letter with lots of thought would be nice too, but, please get yourself a blog or web page or something on which to place all the silly stuff you are DYING to share instead of clogging your friends emails, think of that pile of junk in your real mail box X1000, what does it eventually become? How much could you possibly read?
All I can say is no matter how much I love you if you are prone to sending me lots of junk, you have just that much more chance of being filed under a folder with your name and read, possibly, sometime, once i get through all the stuff i MUST slog through, or maybe never.
That I now place as your own fault since I warned you!
I realize for some this is an addiction. SEEK HELP!
I'm not that much for instant messengers, they tend to lurk, waiting until you are deep into a project then suddenly stealing focus. I like a crisp clean email, but yes, I know, GOOD LUCK! lol
Perhaps the Email clients need to be smarter and present them in a more easily consumable manner.
For example, Gmail could have a button at the top that says Summerise. When you click it, it takes all your unread emails and concatinates them into one long summary.
It can also be smart in the way it does it. For example, if I tend to communicate with Fred Blogs regularly (as determined by my sent items lets say), then his email(s) will be at the top. But the main thing is that its just one long list that i can quickly scroll through and scan.
I don't really comment on blog posts, but I noticed no one has mentioned Heinlein's famous form letter replies to fan mail.
Kevin Kelly reproduces a copy of it here:
I'm sure Mr. Atwood could create such a tool using one of them new fangled computermacheins he is always going on about.