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E-mail woes

December 2001

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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E-mail is thirty years old. It would deserve a big birthday party. Many of us (including myself) are more fond of it than of any other of the countless things we can do with the internet. But it’s suffering from a syndrome that Gerry McGovern, in an article on November 4, 2001, rightly called “too much of a good thing”.

One of the diseases, of course, is spamming. It’s been pestering us for many years and it’s getting worse. Also because there are people preaching a “new” selling technique called “e-mail marketing” – a fancy disguise for online junk mail (in one word, spam.)

There seems to be no end to chain letters, sometimes dressed up as “help” or “social” issues. There are new twists to old tricks, such as an “African” variation of the traditional confidence game – and even a repetition of the infamous 1994 “green card” swindle.

Spam may be the most obvious, but it’s not the only disease in e-mail. There is the exaggerated use of “attachments”, made worse by those mail systems that open them automatically and so clutter us with masses of uninteresting or unwanted material – and also open an easy path for viruses. There is also the silly habit of using html in e-mail (unfortunately set by default in the most commonly used mail software). And there is the never-ending problem of overquoting (this, too, made worse by mail systems that automatically include the incoming message in every reply.)

I wrote a year ago about the diseases in business e-mail. Too many messages being copied to too many people, too many documents being spread around for personal or political reasons that have nothing to do with efficiency, too many managers wasting time because they feel “obligated” to read and answer personally on almost any subject, too many people getting into the act (and confusing the issue) by cross-posting and cross-messaging. Etcetera. Disorganization and waste of time generated by communication clutter and by inefficient use of business e-mail.

It seems to be getting worse. There is increasing discussion of the “productivity paradox”. Communication technology can decrease productivity instead of improving it. It’s reported that in Aldi, an international discount retailer chain, «none of the senior managers (or lower levels) are allowed to have e-mail because it does not aid productivity».

In July 2001, a Gartner study stated that business users spend an average of 49 minutes every day managing their e-mail. Gartner stated that much e-mail is not relevant. It compared unproductive e-mail to «being killed by friendly fire. It’s like carbon monoxide. It’s colorless, odorless».

In May 2001, published a survey of IT professionals globally which found that «e-mail software caused the more problems than any other software application».

After quoting these and other sources on the “productivity paradox”, Gerry McGovern says in his article: «It looks like millions have become unwilling participants in a great productivity swindle. The root cause of the problem is a counter-productive thinking about content and communication. Deep down, many of us fundamentally believe that more and bigger is better. Communication and content are not commodities. More communication can harm rather than aid productivity. More content can mean more wasted time. It’s time for some form of limit, some form of penalty for those who clog up the information arteries».

This isn’t just a problem of quantity. Quality is even more important. E-mail is so convenient that we tend to use it carelessly. If everyone knew how to write only when it’s useful, and only what is useful, in as few words as possible and in the way that is best for the reader, there would be much less clutter and e-mail would be much more useful.

The basic principle of all communication is that we should think from the point of view of other people, say and write what is relevant for them, not what seems interesting to us.

There is an apparently small detail that can be quite relevant. Proofreading. How many of us read a message and correct it (making it clearer and possibly shorter) before sending it? How many people ask themselves if what they have to say is really useful, and if they are saying it in the most useful way for the reader? Caring for people, and for quality of communication, could not only improve productivity but also make life much more pleasant for all of us.


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