My Email Inbox Crossed the 110K Mark

Sometime last week, my email inbox crossed over the 110,000 mark. I have 10’s of thousands of emails in other folders, but my main inbox currently shows 110,092 items. I don’t really see a problem with that, but I believe that one of the greatest promises of social technology is, at some point in the future, my “inbox” will contain messages that have been very nicely categorized and prioritized.

People tend to dislike email because they are overwhelmed by it. They resent the amount of time they have to spend reading and responding. One of the things I hear from our customers is that they appreciate how social technologies can reduce email. This happens at a lot of companies that implement NewsGator Social Sites. Driving more communication through social channels can reduce the volume of email. And this, in turn, can create significant benefits in saved time, reduced storage costs, etc.

But the idea that email is bad misses the point. It’s similar to saying that a cough is bad when you have pneumonia. What you’re really talking about is a symptom. The real issues here are that communication channels are used inappropriately and that people are drowning in information.

To start analyzing the problem with inappropriate use of channels, let’s break down different kinds of text communication. The chart below organizes channels by whether it is sent to specific people and whether it’s intended to be seen immediately.

Specified Recipients

Dynamic Recipients

Synchronous

IM, Group Chat

?

Asynchronous

Email, SMS

Microblogs

Basically, when you’re having a real-time text conversation, you almost always direct your message to specific people. I don’t really see common enterprise use cases for real-time conversations where the recipients are unknown and determined dynamically by some mechanism. When you look at the bottom row, you see messages that are sent without the knowledge that the recipient is actually present (asynchronous). The thing that many people see as the whole point of social is that microblogging creates an entirely new entry where an asynchronous message is sent and the set of people who receive that message is determined by some mechanism other than the sender specifying the recipients (typically, this is done by the system looking at some sort of follower list or social graph). But the main point of this whole chart is that email occupies a real space. There are real use cases where someone wants to send a message to one or more recipients and doesn’t need that to be a synchronous communication (and SMS or text messages are basically the same use case). The point is - that use case will always exist. We may choose to call it something other than email someday, but the use case will never disappear.

What's the Problem with Email?

So if the use case is valid, what is the problem with email? One of the key problems with email comes from incorrect usage. Many times, every kind of broadcast communication is sent via email. People send emails to tons of recipients because someone might possibly want to know the content. Spammers and advertisers continuously send emails because they know they might get read. The net result here is that email can easily become this noisy channel of things you don’t really care about, but you have to get through because there might be something important. Second, knowledge gets trapped in email. When someone asks a question and gets the response in email, that knowledge stops there. Activity streams, by contrast, typically are tailored to the user and are better at making knowledge discoverable. Because the items in an activity stream primarily consist of things the user chose to receive, they tend to be pretty relevant. And streams can be discovered, searched, and shared easily to make a good answer something that benefits more people. But even if you could eliminate all of the spurious emails you receive, I believe you will quickly encounter the third, and larger, problem – there’s just too much information.

Almost everyone I talk to says they get at least 100 emails each work day. I receive between 250 and 300 emails every business day. Brad Feld wrote a fascinating post about his email behavior. Brad is a very efficient and disciplined person – I think most people cannot match his ability to process email. In his blog post, Brad talks about staying in productive “maker mode” stretches for longer periods. This is another area where I think social software can potentially help. I think it can potentially understand when you shouldn’t be social and let you focus.

But the key thing is that basically all the emails that you, Brad, or I receive are valid. They represent information being shared or requests being made that are for real business value. It’s easy to hate email, but the truth is basically every knowledge worker already has too much information flowing in and too many requests that interrupt the flow of their work. It just so happens that, today, many of those interrupting pieces of information are emails. So how can social help with this?

It's All About Prioritizing

One answer is that smart social systems can help prioritize information. When you login to Facebook, it’s likely the items you see will have pictures and have lots of comments and likes. Facebook is using content and social filtering to prioritize the things that should be most engaging for you. You can take some ownership of this by putting different friends at different levels of strength of relationship and choose to exclude certain kinds of updates. It takes some work for both Facebook and you, but you can often create an experience where you generally have “good” stuff showing in your Facebook stream. Systems like our Social Sites solution tackle the same problem through a mixture of algorithmic prioritization and user-defined views that capture the most important activities.

This process of filtering and prioritizing information coming at you is essentially a race. Every day, more information is being created faster than the day before. In August of 2010, Eric Schmidt pointed out that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. This rate of information production hasn’t slowed down…

Social is one of the only approaches that has any chance of keeping up with the information overload race. The more a system knows about you and how you relate to other people, the better it can be at prioritizing information for you. When you think about Google’s famous page rank algorithm (deciding how authoritative a particular web page was for a particular topic by looking at how many sites of significant magnitude linked to that page for that topic), you see the power of social filtering. When someone chooses to add a link to another site, they are providing human judgment. Combining many human decisions into a ranking algorithm has proved to be very powerful for Google to get good search results. Social filtering of incoming information leverages very similar principles, and there’s a ton of research and experimentation being done here.

Imagine a World...

I encourage you to think about what the world could be like if there was a smart, benevolent system always looking out for the information you need right now, understanding the things that are truly priorities for you, and helping to divert the rest of the information avalanche away from you. I feel fine having over 110,000 emails in my inbox, but I feel even better about the idea that someday I will probably have a very different kind of inbox where I’ll only have a few things in a few different categories. But I’ll know those things are truly urgent, truly important, or maybe just really likely to make me smile. The future of social is an “inbox” that drives productivity and satisfaction.

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