Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Email's Curse of Success

Computer Scientists have communicated via email since the mid-1980's. Back then email worked quite well: You would send a message and usually get a quick response. We avoided telephone tag, trying to reach each other by phone when we needed to talk to each other quickly. Research ideas spread quickly; the world became smaller. Even within a department communication became paperless as one can get a message out to everyone far quicker electronically.

So what went wrong? We still use email today as the primary source of communication among computer scientists. But send a message today and I've learned to wait on average a couple of days to expect a response, if I get one at all.

Spam is the obvious culprit. Spam does clog our inboxes and even worse many of us don't carefully go through our spam folders and some legitimate mail gets unread. Spam has also made some computer scientists reluctant to share their email addresses online. But spam is not the only issue.

Email has become the communication of choice in the rest of the world as well. Besides messages from other scientists, I get email about my daughter's soccer team, announcements of upcoming concerts, warnings from the local police departments, a morning summary of the New York Times, financial information, utility bills and much more. All legitimate and usually useful email but it takes longer to work through it and slows down the time to respond to other scientists. Not to mention the many other web distractions such as news and weblogs (So stop reading this blog and respond to my emails. You know who you are.)

I can't rely on older technologies; since computer scientists expect email they check even less often their phone messages and postal mail. I can't rely on newer technology; computer scientists are surprisingly slow in adapting to new tools (like mail attachments) and it'll be years before instant messaging becomes common in the scientific community.

Oddly enough in our highly connected society it becomes harder and harder to get someones attention. So what am I doing? Slowly collecting the cell phone numbers of other computer scientists. Want mine? Send me an email.


  1. Oddly enough as I was reading your post I thought that the correct new way to get your colleagues attention would be to text-message them or call them on their cell phone since that is the new medium, but, of course, you ended your post with the same idea.

  2. Lance, I think the best way to circumvent the problem is to set up a ``filtering scheme'' - if your mail system has one. I'm currently using Pine, and it has a great filtering scheme. For example, you can assign a folder ``COLLEAGUES'' and have Pine move the emails from your colleagues to this folder. [Of course, you must set up a rule like ``move an email to this folder, if the `To:' field contains'' or something.] So, you can check this folder more often than the general inbox. Of course this does not solve the entire problem - you still need to go through the general inbox, delete spams, insert a new colleague to your COLLEAGUES folder, etc; but the point is you can do it less often. If every computer scientist adopted this, the problem you mentioned would likely be resolved.

  3. Wait a minute, aren't blogs the primary medium for all human discourse now?

  4. That's why most cell phones have a little button you can use to turn them off, when you are sleeping or attending a class.
    The point of cell phones is that you can be available whenever you want to be.

  5. Think on the other side, the spam/virus makers actually have pushed our internet technology (or even invest money on the researches).

    hi Joseph, is there any evidence that supports ur statement?