Ok. I think that the constant stream of seemingly random interruptions into my computer needs to be addressed. I feel like a battle is being waged - daily: for my attention and time. As a consequence, I have decided to draft the things that have bothered me most about email (the e stands for evil by the way) and some clues as to how best to deal with me in the electronic realm.
First, the assumptions:
1) It is assumed that we are always online or at least frequently – I am not and it is inaccurate as well as somewhat unfair to assume that we are just waiting on the other end of a computer screen for something. Admittedly one might feel that they are missing out on a world of virtual communication and that they must constantly be online, but who needs this? Additionally, it is difficult to figure out when you can get mad at someone for not returning an email for there is really no clear expectations of turnaround for this medium of communication; there are also a million of excuses that are acceptable for why one did not respond (e.g., death, lines down, “just wanted to stay off the computer for a while”, another death – it goes on).
2) It is assumed that we remember what has been emailed before – this is not the case and one must consistently re-read some virtual history, which could span over several weeks/emails (an electronic Memento kicks in – movie reference [sorry but cannot help it]). As a result, most of our messages appear to us as contextless ramblings of some virtual representative of our real selves who is always trying to catch up to us like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.
3) It is assumed that we communicate well over the email – I know that I do not and I believe that this message delivery system compels brevity, humorlessness, and factuality over creativity and depth (consequently, my motivation for using it has been decreased even further as reading the consistent barrage of brief, humorless and factual messages is analogous to factory work). Let me be clear, I am not asking for long, funny, stories. I just cannot take the endless stream of lifeless text any longer. Facebook sometimes interrupts the flow with a photo or a funny cartoon but even here I notice that my ability to read anything longer than a paragraph is being triggered.
4) It is assumed that we will generally get to a message at some point in the near future – I am afraid that this is simply not the case. I am always 20-50 emails behind and thus I am forced to prioritize: family and friends as well as “really important” messages, then emails from groups of which I am a member of the governing council and then everything else. Those who know me have responded accordingly but this compels everyone to write subject lines that all convey a sense of urgency (like the news media) and this puts me in the same situation where nothing is considered anymore because it is concluded that everything cannot be an emergency. The result: 5,654 (read and unread) emails currently exist on my system and more are coming.
5) It is assumed that individuals expect to have their emessages responded to – this is absurd: if someone says that “I will see you on Thursday”, I do not see why I need to confirm this. There has never been an email etiquette book, but I feel I need one. For example, if someone sends an email with a smiley face, is one supposed to respond with some other form of e-cuteness or is it acceptable to just go about one’s business? Are we meant to respond to every single question asked of us in e-space? Whatever happened to things that we just ignore when they are put to us in person? If someone sends you 50 word emails, what is the minimal response (in words) that one can send back without seeming to be rude (is there a 5-1 ratio or 2-1 or is it 1-1)? Where is the Seinfeld for e-communication?
6) It is assumed that we have all agreed to become e-slaves - tote that barge, respond to that message. I have been spending more and more time offline (returning to non-virtual life) as my incoming email tends to reach approximately 50-75 per day. I do not recall signing any piece of paper where I agreed to be placed at the beck and call of any individual with a computer, iphone, ipad, blackberry or anything other electronic device. Nor do I recall agreeing to be contacted principally through my monitor and eliminating non-computer, mediated human contact with colleagues. “Give us free,” as the beautiful African said in the horrible film Amistad.
7) It is assumed that we can do other things without constantly checking ones account. I do not check my mail box (the real one) all of the time nor keep picking up my phone to see if there is a phone message. Yet, there is something about the email that I must keep checking it (perhaps the fact that we send out hundreds of emails all the time but are not quite sure when someone will respond or that it is never clear when that friend from high school will track you down). In this context, I find it hard to work sometimes. I am essentially waiting for some random contact with another human being – given the manner in which email is constructed, however, this could be from any human being and it could contain any message. It is actually something like a video game – how quickly can I kill the messages that have been sent to me. An add, bamn let me get rid of that. Some question, bamn let me answer that thing. What’s next? I thought the video game space invaders had been taken off the market. It is simply back with a vengeance.
8) It is assumed that we will not become distracted when we go online. Very frequently one could get lost during one session. Actually, it is frequently the case that one goes on email for one thing and then the initial reason for going online is forgotten and two hours later you still have stuff to do.
9) It is assumed that little half ass attempts to make the emessaging more human will make us more comfortable using it. For example, smiley faces serve as nothing but a reminder that much of what we do when we communicate is lost on the web. There is no personality, there is no inflection point, no thoughtful pauses – just punctuated equilibria; disconnected virtual intrusions into what used to be my private domain.
10) It is assumed that we will not tire of being manipulated and then just quit (because we are so addicted/familiar). For example, I am now receiving emails that have figured out that if you lead with the word “Re:” that it will automatically occur to the individual that they must have earlier sent something, which is only now being responded to. Well since we don’t remember, we open them and that is half of the trouble/battle for your consciousness: getting you there. Why? Well, because the key is to get there and then it is assumed that since we are there we will give them some of our time and attention. Well, enough is enough. Quit figuring out ways to get me because I am just not looking anymore.
11) It is assumed that we will scroll long distances to read the actual email. This is extremely misunderstood. I think that the likelihood that I will read an email is significantly decreased for every line beyond the subject line.
12) It is assumed that we are willing to accept the internet as a place to conduct battle (e.g., ducking spam, rudeness and so forth).
13) It is assumed that we are willing to open emails that you are not familiar with, engaging in the electronic equivalent of unsafe sex. There are so many viruses and Trojans right now (not the good kind) that I am at the point of not opening anything that is not sent from someone I have known in the flesh for at least 10 years.
Now, the solutions:
- Clarify to all individuals that you will only be online once a week (this will prompt them to call you)
- Clarify to all individuals that they will need to use the subject line better: e.g., place the topic and all essential words in subject line (this will also prompt them to call you for this selection takes effort)
- Use an old-school timing device that one would use in the kitchen to limit the amount of time spent on each email (you know with an alarm and the arrow – you wind it; you get the point)
- Email me every day until you hear back from me. lately I am simply more inclined to respond to persistence as opposed to single efforts. My thinking: if you can’t email me 20 times or figure out that you should just pick up the phone, then you’re not really interested in contacting me. The wave of new emails is coming and if I miss a few, I can’t go back. I can’t. You know why? Because there is more coming and I will be even further behind. At moments of exhaustion, I will look at the emails missed/past and wonder what my life would have been like had I responded to everything.
- Stop emailing me and call me up or better yet skype me. Generally, just leave me alone for a while as I contemplate the whole communication thing. I realize that this contradicts the last one. What's your point?
Next: why I don’t answer my phone and probably won’t give you my skype address.