As a continuation of looking at the internet era through the lens provided by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, I’ll start with email – what Jeremiah Owyang called the “first and largest social network“. If television is amusing us to death, email is either boring us to death or burying us alive. At first, email was an extension of letters and office memos, but as the technology allowed connectivity to the entire world, most office workers find themselves sorting, filing, responding to and deleting emails. Some of the problems with email:
- It becomes the primary method of communication when more personable (phone call or in person) or less obtrusive (IM, wiki) options might be more appropriate
- Expectations of how fast email should be responded to vary greatly. Many treat all email as Urgent & Important (see my discussion of where Twitter falls on Covey’s 4 quadrants). In the mid-90’s when it could sometimes hours (or “next day”) for email to get from one company to another, now some people feel obligated to answer in minutes. Email is not geared well for real-time communication, nor is a worker efficient if they have to pounce every time new mail is arriving.
- Workers can become inundated with the volume of messages received since they are often subscribed to too many lists, or are in the middle of too many conversations (GMail’s interface provides threading, but Outlook handles threads very poorly – sort by subject and hope you can follow what is going on).
As Neil Postman said, the tool tends to shape the communication, and email use can go even further by having workers spending their days doing nothing but sending and receiving emails. Now I’m no suggesting that we should get rid of email (nor would I claim that email is dead or even that you should take a day a week away from email), rather like PowerPoint, it should be used when necessary and with consideration to the intent and audience. The challenge today is that no single tool is best for all communications. Hutch Carpenter wrote a nice article describing how Google Wave gives a “Beautiful Potential, Faraway Dream”; until the dream is realized, you can either stick to using email or try and leverage a number of tools. I use a mix of email, instant messenger, Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, wikis, and blogs/RSS (not to mention phone, videoconferencing and when ever possible IRL). Most people aren’t going to want to learn or toggle between so many tools, but if you can efficiently add just a couple of options, you can take control of the communication rather than the being constrained by the tools.
Do you see the email issue getting better? Will we just need to wait until the large enterprise tools have this functionality built in?