Friday, June 06, 2008

email: not as useful as it could be

(Can still register for COMPLEXITY 2008: here)

Email stories:
  1. Recently a co-author and I both thought that the other one was not responding to emails. We were both annoyed at each other. But it wasn't true! Why did it happen? A combination of both being busy (so maybe it was a bit true), spam filters, and even a few cases where the email really did not get through and was not spam filtered. We figured out what was going on, stopped being annoyed at each other, and made progress on the paper. But I can imagine this sort of thing being more serious and causing a mob war based on a perceived lack of respect.
  2. From experience I've leared that emailing ugrads for an event is not enough, even if there is free food. You need to use posters (old school!) and have teachers announce it in class. Why? They get too much email and some put off reading it (or at least reading mine) until after the event is over.
  3. I had a Monday 11:00AM meeting scheduled and the person I was going to meet emailed me the prior night at Sunday 11:00PM saying he had to cancel. But email was slow for some reason (nobody knows why) and it got to me at Monday 4:00PM. No big deal, but my annoyance at him was unwarranted.
  4. I read an article in a magazine and thought that some other people would be interested in it, so I copied it (with a copy machine). I later found that it was on line. I conducted an experiment: I put it in 4 peoples physical mailbox, and emailed it to 4 other people. Those who got it in their physical mailboxes read it, those who I emailed a pointer did not.
A combination of email NOT working sometimes and of having TOO MUCH email to get through it all, is making it a less useful medium. The ``too much email'' is not about spammers--- there is lots of email that is not spam but you still don't need it. And its getting worse becaue of the following cycle:
  1. People don't pay attention to email since they get too much.
  2. Hence they need to be send reminders
  3. Hence they get more email.
  4. People don't pay attention to email since they get too much.
Is this really a problem? If so, what to do about it? Charging people for emailing might help the spam problem, but again, this is NOT the problem I'm talking about.


  1. The human brain is great at filtering out unwanted distractions. It needs to. When you are in a jungle and there are lions out to eat you (no lion in the jungle, but who cares?) then you have to spot looking at this beautiful flower or listening to a squirrel nearby (jungle squirrel anyone?).

    What we need a specialized tools that give you the information you want when you need it. No more. We are getting there.

    Hint: it has to be "pull" not "pull". RSS feeds, not email.

  2. Occasionally, in circumstances like you describe, I utilize an obscure but useful device called, I believe, the "telephone".

    I'm always amazed that people treat e-mail as reliable, particularly for time-sensitive information. Yes, it's probably 99% or 99+% reliable in terms of delivery, depending on the aggressiveness of your spam filter. But when everyone's getting 50-100+ messages a day, delivery isn't actually the same as registering as having arrived.

  3. How much email do we really get?
    I'm a graduate student in CS.
    I get ~15-20 emails a day, not counting spam but do counting
    general and/or irrelevant emails
    (e.g. department announcements).
    I always feel that i get TOO FEW emails and it sometimes makes me worry that my work is not interesting enough / my collaborations state is not active enough etc.

    So my question is, how many emails do people really get? perhaps a poll could be useful here?

  4. I think a lot of the problem people have with email isn't so much that it takes a lot of their time to deal with, but that they have no system for organizing it, so their inbox fills up with junk very quickly, and they perceive that it is overwhelming to deal with.

    I use Google Mail. It filters nearly all of the spam, and I set up my own filters to automatically tag and skip the inbox on emails that don't need to be read immediately, so that I don't get alerted on them, but I can check them at the end of the day if I want (e.g. mass emails to the whole department about a colloquium speaker) or not (e.g. emails from politicians to whom I have donated money). I then get alerted on all the rest, and I do triage:

    a) Respond immediately (which I always do if the response is < 1 paragraph, or if time-critical despite taking > 1 paragraph)

    b) Archive and do nothing (spam/thank you emails/forwarded jokes/etc.)

    c) Leave in the inbox as something important to deal with, but not immediately.

    I get about 50 spam emails a day that are filtered; and average perhaps 20-30 non-spam. Almost half of the latter is category (b) and so disappears immediately, and almost half is category (a) and so disappears after one minute of work. Hence my inbox, which represents category (c), remains between 0 and 20 emails at all times. When I am teaching a class of 150 students, category (c) gets relatively bigger, as students ask questions that require me, for instance, to look through their homework, but even then most of the extra traffic goes into category (a), as their questions tend to be easy and quick to answer.

    I feel this system scales very well.

  5. Gmail is truly great. I would be very uncomfortable without it. I have all my school emails forwarded to it as well. I get about 30 emails a day, however, about less than 5 of them reach my inbox. The rest gets filtered away for me to deal with at a more appropriate time. But Bill is right. A lot of people are stuck with unergonomic and unreliable email services like their school email. I think it's more of a social issue. We need to put pressure on people to utilize email better. However, i guess it could be worse. For instance, the number of email illiterate people in math departments in surprisingly high.

  6. often I'm getting over 100 emails per day; majority are not spam.

  7. I usually just get the mails I need. I use Gmail, and forward all my other mails to it, and use its automatic filtering. All mailing lists mails, student questions, ... go to their appropriate boxes. Deal with your mails as soon as you can. Archive those mails you don't need to keep, tagging by something like Done. Firefox's Better Gmail 2 add-on is also helpful, if you prefer folders instead of just tags.

    I rarely get spam. around 1 in 2 weeks. Just don't put your email anywhere in any format that google or spiders can find. Hopefully too few people use these tricks currently to make it worthy for spammers to find your email.

  8. One more thing, if a friend sends you an email you don't want to receive, tell her to stop sending emails similar to that.