Friday, 20 July 2018

New email charter

The original email charter sets out 10 rules aimed at saving us all from drowning in emails:

  1. Respect recipient's time (ie don't send an email unless you absolutely have to).
  2. Don't treat email brevity as rudeness.
  3. Keep emails as clear as possible.
  4. Keep questions specific.
  5. Don't add unnecessary cc's.
  6. Don't let threads get too long.
  7. Avoid unnecessary attachments.
  8. Restrict short messages to the subject line.
  9. Don't send contentless responses
  10. Disconnect: don't spend so much time on email.
Much as I appreciate this charter and its attempts to consciously steer our norms regarding email, i don't think it goes far enough. 
Specifically, I don't think it goes far enough in severing norms around email from historical norms around other forms of communication: letters and phone calls. There are two main symptoms of this: It is too nice, and it puts too much onus on the senders.

In short, the email charter treats the email problem (I assume I don't need to explain to anybody living what this is!) as a collective action problem, rightly I think. It assumes there is a common good - email - but that it's maintenance depends on us all paying our dues (where the dues are literally chunks of our time). It assumes that the dues are being elevated unreasonably by email free riders: people who send emails without regard to points 1-10 above. The solution, it follows, is to discourage such free riding.

Problem: that's not going to work. Unless free riding is costly, people are going to do it. And its not costly to free ride - its only costly to be the recipient. Furthermore, a significant amount of the free riding is done by bots these days, who are not going to be susceptible to moral pressure.

What we need is to shift the power to the receivers of emails. Some of the points in the charter do aim in this direction. For example, number two is aimed at normalizing brevity of the kind where certain social niceties associated with letter-writing (yours sincerely, Dear, etc) are dispensed with. The aim is to shift norms so that senders don't incur costs with they relieve themselves of some email labour. Similarly, point 10 encourages us to just switch off occasionally. again the aim is to change the norms - the expectations that people will be permanently on call, responding to emails. 

Email brings together the worst aspects of its two predecessors. With postal mail, there is no way to block someone form posting something to you. but at least there is no expectation that you will be permanently poised by your front door, ready to respond to something that might drop through the letterbox. Noone complains if you don't respond to the letter right away. 

Phone calls, on the other hand, really do invite an immediate response, and they really do follow you around. On the plus side, however, receiving a phone call is optional. I can always choose to just not pick up. And *if* i don't pick up, there is no obligation on me to call you back (at least in the good old days before mobiles). You just have to keep trying, until such a time as it suits me to make myself receptive to your entreaty.

Not only does email inherit neither redeeming feature, its also inappropriately saddled with anachronisms stemming from its predecessors. From letter writing it inherited the requirement of inserting functionless niceties into your prose. They don't make sense in emails. Letters take a certain amount of time to write and post so it makes sense to add a few bells and whistles. Phone calls, on the other hand, involve you engaging with a living human being, so it makes sense to be warm and engaged.

Emails should be more like telegrams. ie they should be short (if you want bells and whistles write to me), impersonal (if you want a personal interaction call me) and there should be zero obligation to respond.

I know people who argue that if you don't respond promptly to other people's emails then you are essentially treating their time as less important than yours (ouch). But, frankly, if i try to respond to all my emails, then i am essentially treating email etiquette as more important than my research, my health, and my family because there is just so damn much of it. Besides, ought implies can, people.

So here is my own, unapologetic, actually a little bit apologetic but hoping to shift the standard so i dont have to feel so apologetic about it.

  1. I might not respond to your email. It might be because I read the message at 10.15 last night when my brain had already started its process of shut down and it just never hit my consciousness, but because its now marked as 'read' will never get a second chance. Or it might be because just as i was about to respond to it someone knocked on my door to tell me about some sort of crisis they're having and, see above for what happens when an email is no longer marked unread. I could change my settings so that things don't get marked as read automatically like this, but i'm not going to, because that would only create extra email labour. It isn't because the email wasn't interesting/important etc. At least, it needn't be. I've 'overlooked' all sorts of interesting and important emails in the past - invitations to events, emails from old friends, desperate pleas for help from students - all unintentionally. Still prefer to keep my settings as they are than to do more work - that's how bad it is!
  2. You shouldn't draw any conclusions from the fact that i haven't responded to your email! You shouldn't take me as rude (I might be, but if you didn't get a reply you cant be sure). You shouldn't infer that whatever you've suggested has been rejected by me. Resend your email if it was important! Multiple times if necessary! I really don't object it to extra inbox content if its important. I just really dont want to have to spend extra time working out whats important. We need to wean ourselves off the idea that sending an email creates an obligation in the receiver.
  3. In my out-of-office message, i'm going to let you know if i'm out of the office. but i'm also going to let you know that i'm not going to go through the messages that accrue in my absence! If a striker is required to catch up on work that accrues while they're on strike, its illegal. so why on earth is it normal to expect people back from a holiday to catch up on their emails? No, emails accrued while i'm away don't exist as far as i'm concerned. they're like unanswered phone calls. You'll need to try again when i'm home. Sorry-not-sorry
Does all this make me a parasite, an email free-rider? Possibly, but personally i'm not sure if this whole 'email is a collective good that we must all be careful not to abuse' thing is quite right.  I don't think that emails, in their current form, are doing what we actually want them to do. I think we would all benefit if our ability to assume that an email had been received was weakened significantly.

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