How To Fix Email: A Radical Proposal

Professor Beth Kollo has an interesting idea about our email dominated culture, in a post called Recreating Email. What if we changed a basic rule about how it works to give us back more control? Why do we assume it has to work the way it has? She offers:

…email isn’t an ‘it.’ It’s a technological system, built by people, and it can be changed! It can! It can have different kinds of functionality. Someone at some point decided email should be able to be formatted like word processors — so now we have bold,italics, etc. So let’s be creative about what’s possible with email — and what we could make impossible if we wanted.

I dig it. Beth believes, as I do, that technology encodes values.  A speedometer that goes up to 150 when the speed limit is 60 suggests a value different from the values of the law. Just as a 140 character text limit suggests values about what can or should be said. So there are dangerous assumptions are encoded in the design of email, and we might need a redesign to fix them.

Here’s her specific proposal for fixing email:

Here’s how it works: Email servers that service workplaces with actual working hours are configured so that individual users can write as much email as they want, but the server will only deliver email between 8 am and 6 pm. And only Monday through Friday. And not on holidays. That’s the default setting. An individual employee doesn’t configure it to do things this way. It’s the default. This is key. Because defaults telegraph the institution’s expectations. Defaults establish the boundaries of accepted and expected behavior.

So email only gets delivered during work hours. But let’s say I have a couple close colleagues with whom I collaborate, and I want to be able to reach them at any time. In order to do that, I have to ask their permission, a kind of friend request. And they have to agree. It’s a two-way handshake, like a pgp key. And it expires quarterly.

Interesting. I like the idea that there are boundaries for email. But I don’t like that the organization is going to set them for everyone. First, maybe some employees are most productive at night (I often am). The defaults here make it hard for them to be effective. Second, putting rules like these in place makes it easy for other rules to follow (length limits? Emails per day?), and I don’t like the idea of my employer dictating to me, or anyone, how to be effective. I suppose if it’s all optional, and these are just defaults that’s one thing, but IT departments tend to be heavy handed with rules and such.

I’d much rather see organizations evaluating me for my performance, but not restricting me to what means I can use to perform. Perhaps they can offer training, or provide tools I can choose to use like Rescue Time that help me get regular feedback on how I can manage my time, and my email usage.  It’s embarrassing how little Outlook, gmail and Thunderbird do to teach good email and information overload management tactics (they do almost nothing).

But I do like the spirit of Beth’s point: email has a design. How can we change the design of email, and email applications, to better serve us?

12 Responses to “How To Fix Email: A Radical Proposal”

  1. Phil Simon

    Email is only a ball and chain to those who insist to use it for everything. Despite what many in believe, there are vastly superior tools for true collaboration: Google Docs, video Skype, screen sharing apps, wikis, Yammer, forums, etc. Hell, even a Facebook Group will work.

    Only provincial and change-averse people insist upon using email for everything. I just don’t see the need to alter servers because some people are married to Outlook or LotusNotes.

    But, of course, that’s me.

  2. Riley Harrison

    Well to me that’s analogous to putting a padlock on the refrigerator rather than developing the discipline to eat sensibly.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Riley: I agree. it’s the wrong end of the problem. I have trouble blaming technology entirely for problems of self-control and self-awareness. Better technology helps you to have self control and self awareness, but there is no way to replace those attributes purely through software.

  3. Greg Linster

    Great point Scott! This ties into a point you made a while back. Alcohol (like email) can be dangerous if you don’t have self awareness and discipline, but I’d rather live in a world with both if given the choice.

  4. Sameer chadha

    Great perspective. Reshaping email towards its ideal should embody our value and respect for life and each other-how many emails can i send my close friend in a day? How many emails would i like to read in a day? If i was allowed to pick only certain times ii could read email, what would they be? If email is one mode of communication, what are the others and how do they compare?

    Maybe receiving email could become as exciting as receiving analog mail via a postman in the past, sans junk mail!

  5. Per Rosing Mogensen

    It’s not directly solving the problem in this case, but (my former employer) Xerox is experimenting with analyzing what goes through your email inbox. It can show hourly email traffic, who sends you the most urgent emails, who sends the longest, etc. I hope others pick up on such tools and implement more functionality than just analysis, so it can be used more actively to improve email use.



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