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A Sunday sideways shufti at mail

We have mail.

Maybe I should say: I have mail.

For sure I do:

  • Physical or snail-mail arriving at work and at home
  • “Work” e-mail, usually received via BlackBerry
  • “Personal” e-mail, which for me consists of mail received at my .mac mail account
  • “Social network” mail, which for me consists mainly of Facebook messages (and the occasional LinkedIn mail)
  • SMS, usually received via BlackBerry
  • Voicemail, usually received as SMS via BlackBerry
  • Tweets, occasionally received as SMS via BlackBerry

There are others, but for the most part that’s what I consider to be my “mail”.

There have been many arguments about mail over the years, many I agree with, many I don’t. The grounds for argument tend to cover a few common themes:

  • the ability to import or export contacts and  address books
  • the ability to import or export the mail itself
  • the “ownership” of the patterns of mail sending and receiving

This post is not about any of these things.

Those of you who know me well have heard me rant and rail about the potential evils of “cc” and “bcc”, two of the reasons I’ve never liked “work” e-mail.

This post is not about those things either.

So what is it about? It’s about constraints. Specifically two types of constraints:

One, the absence of Forward in Facebook:

I’ve been fascinated by that “omission”, and what I’ve been doing is dispassionately observing what happens as a result. For years I’ve been saying that in large enterprises, we have so much of “keep me in the loop” that the loops have become infinite; you get larger and larger mail lists and distribution lists and copy lists; people edit these lists, wantonly dropping people on and off message chains; people also go on holiday and therefore drop themselves off a particular discussion by not being there.

But it doesn’t matter. Much of the time, people stay in the loop one way or the other.

And, sadly, so do the decisions. Decisions often fail to generate the escape velocity needed to get away from the inertia of the infinite loop.

Much of this is made possible by the existence of the Forward button. And I’ve often wondered, what would happen if I don’t have that button. And you know something? I’ve enjoyed not having that button. Conversations take place in self-contained units, reach natural closes, avoid destructive looping. So there’s something to be said for not having a Forward button.

Two, the message size constraint in Twitter:

Again, I’ve been fascinated by what happens when I’m space-constrained. For many people, this has meant using all kinds of abbreviations and short forms and today-neologisms. I heard Paulo Coelho recently talking about the hundreds of years it took to move us from  “thee” and “thou” to “you”, and the comparative speed with which we appear to be moving from “you” to “u”.

It may be the pedant in me (and there is one, dormant except for occasions like this); I have largely avoided those abbreviations. At least I think I have. Instead, I have tried to be more succinct, using fewer words, using clearer words, and avoiding the temptation of using what I consider to be hamburger words (where you chop the original words into tiny pieces and then try and compress them for speed and brevity).

Soon I will know. Sam Lawrence is running an experiment for me, taking my tweetstream, making a ManyEyes cloud of it, and comparing that cloud to the equivalent for my blog. I am looking forward to seeing how my vocabulary shifts. I will learn something as a result.

Talking about learning, I’m learning a lot about mail, and about conversations in general, from Twitter. I love the separation of the plain tweet from the @person tweet from the DM. [For those who don’t know about twitter, a plain tweet is one where I post a 140 character message to the general tweetstream, visible to all who “follow” me, who subscribe to my tweetfeed; an @person tweet is one where I am addressing a named person or person with a tweet, but all my followers can see it; while a DM is a direct message, and is only visible to the sender and the recipient.

So as we move deeper into the 21st century, I think there’s a lot for us to learn about mail. And while everyone fights about walled gardens in social networks, while subtler walled gardens emanate from “vendors” in the guise of UCC, I want to concentrate on what I can learn by watching the constraints, and our behaviour under those constraints.

  • What happens if I didn’t have a cc button, a bcc button, a Forward button?
  • What happens if I didn’t have  “attach document, attach spreadsheet, attach presentation” buttons?
  • What happens if I did have  “attach link, attach video, attach audio” buttons, much like Facebook?

Which reminds me. I quite liked the diagram at the beginning of this post.

Posted in Four pillars .


5 Responses

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  1. Mike Persaud says

    A product delivered to your spec would probably be the earliest ever versions of electronic mail or the efforts we all made when knocking up VB apps back in those early days.

    Email applications of yesterday failed because they lacked the features you identify as the problem today. Further disruption required, but what’s taking so long?

    I cannot disagree with you here nor do I have the answer, but I do agree with Michael Arrington in this post.
    http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/03/23/a-crisis-in-communication/

    I’d like to crack that problem.

  2. Steve Ellwood says

    Have you seen http://five.sentenc.es/

    Based on Mike’s blog post http://www.mikeindustries.com/blog/archive/2007/07/fight-email-overload-with-sentences

    Using Microsoft Office Communicator at work helps – the presence bit – you know when someone’s there to take a call, rather than an email.

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