RhizoANT and email

The other day Rebecca posted on her blog and asked how we (I think she meant other RhizoANT collaborators) view email.  How is email different from other technologies that we use to communicate with one another for various projects.  In a previous RhizoANT post I wrote about (what seemed to be) our main vehicle for communication, the Google Doc.  Of course, as Rebecca points out we also used email to discuss some topics off the record, sort of like the sidebar that lawyers have with the judge in a court case.

Just to kick off I'll start from the stance that I don't hate email.  I do my best to be at inbox-zero.  It never really happens for me, but I do my best.  At any given time I have anywhere from 5-10 email messages that need my attention.  As I respond to them, I archive them (no need for filing, just hit archive in gmail!)  While I have access to Google Inbox I have opted to not use it.  I prefer the look, feel, and functionality of GMail "classic" and, at least according to Rebecca, GMail classic has better search functionality, which for me is a key feature because I don't bother filing anything.

Now, there is one 'feature' of email (in general) that I don't like.  Every time someone responds there is a loooooooooong appendage to their email with the history of the communication.  I know that this is a good feature for replying (so that people know what you are replying to), but we, as a RhizoResearch team, tend to use email conversationally. So we might just add a sentence or two as a response. There really is no need for the history.   Also, participants respond at different times to different messages, so it becomes and experience of trying to piece things together after the fact.

When we are discussing via email, in a conversational manner it's not a problem that messages become convoluted and we have email chains like the one pictured.  However, when we discuss deliverables, and we are planning how we will proceed with a project, these email chains become unwieldy in trying to figure out who is doing what - or heck forget about others for the moment, email makes it harder to figure out what I agreed to do at some point in some email without going back and looking at everything and all interactions.  I think a way around this is to have a recording secretary for the meeting whose task is to keep track of an email thread and pull out actionable items (can't this be automated?)

The other thing I wish email did better was to better manage my identities.  I started using email around 1996 or 1997. Yahoo and Hotmail (before the Microsoft acquisition) were my first two email addresses. I still have them and use them. I also have 4 GMail addresses, and I use every one of them for different reasons.  I have some work colleagues who have been acculturated into email use in the following way: If they want to make sure that you see something, like right NOW, they will email ALL of the emails they have for you.  Now, why should I clean up 6 email accounts after I've read and responded to the email?  Why not have an ability to manage my multiple identities at one spot? This isn't a problem with those one or two work colleagues who exhibit this emailing behavior, it's also a problem with collaboration.  I use my university email (email #8...which is actually managed by one of my gmails) as my de facto contact for research collaborations, but what I really use to when the rubber meets the road for actual work is gmail (google docs), so my communication gets fragmented among different email accounts, or worse I have to tell people to invite multiple gmail accounts to collaborative documents to make sure I get things.

There's got to be an easier way ;-) Part of me is wondering if we've exceeded the reach of email. Email seems to be a contemporary analogue to traditional mail, which is brought to you by the post office.  I have many fond memories (and old letter to prove it!) from dear friends and pen pals from 20 years ago. Mailing something took a week to get there (more or less), and another week to get back. If people wrote back to you right away the travel time would be 2 weeks. If they took longer obviously it would take longer.  The heuristics of email are similar to traditional letter writing - despite the instantaneous nature of email.  The usage of the system by its users has evolved to take advantage of that instantaneity, however the heuristics of the system have not.  Have we stretched the metaphor too thin for email?  Is it time to bring back Google Wave? ;-)

your thoughts?


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