|by Flemming Funch|
It has been several years since e-mail stopped being a useful medium for me. Now it is mostly an ongoing source of guilt for me, because of all the needles I don't notice in the loads of hay stacks I get every day. I still get 5-600 e-mail messages per day. Amongst them, I'm sure, many gold nuggets of information, as well as important personal messages I really should be attending to. But in the mass of everything else, and by the sheer volume of it, it is a matter of complete luck whether I happen to notice some of the stuff I ought to notice. What isn't working for me is the linear, unstructured nature of e-mail.
I can't easily see what is personal and what isn't. I can't easily see who I have a previous history with and who I don't. I can't easily keep track of what is interesting or important or what I need to do something about.
Yes, yes, I know about e-mail folders and filters and stuff like that. I have lots of folders, and I have lots of filters filtering mailing lists and other things into different folders. And I have different labels in different colors I can assign to messages. But it doesn't help very much. I still have more than 20,000 messages in my inbox. Many of which are now marked as "Read This!", "Answer This!", "Take Action", etc. Which I usually don't get around to, because there are too many. But if it is REALLY important, I can hope to run into it again. If I put it in another folder I can be sure to never run into it again.
Whenever I say something like this, a few helpful people will always answer and tell me I should just be using their e-mail program, and they have everything perfectly in order. But, I'm sorry, it is usually from somebody who gets just 20 e-mails per day, or who structures their mind totally different than I do.
I really need many more dimensions to things. Putting something in only one folder means I probably lose it. I need to be able to easily assign many different traits to an item. Or, better yet, I need most of them to be assigned automatically. An e-mail has a very different importance if I'm having a conversation with that person, or if it is person who is important to me, or if somebody is asking me a question, than if it is just some discussion on a mailing list.
I also can't deal with the linear nature of it, where mail is just stacking up, and I can only deal with it by reading through it from one end.
It pains my greatly that many people write to me, something which they consider important, and they're waiting attentively for my answer. And if my answer doesn't come, probably because I never noticed their message, they read a negative meaning into it. I didn't agree with what they said, I don't like them, I'm angry at them, they're not important enough, or whatever. The truth is normally that I never noticed their important question. It is lost in 20,000 pieces of mail.
So, part of what is wrong with e-mail is that it might feel like an actual communication, as part of a conversation, when it often isn't. I can't read all my e-mail any more than I can read every word in the newspaper every day. I don't, and I can't. If I read a newspaper at all, which I don't do very often, I look at the front page, and I page around in it and look at what catches my attention. And I might go to certain sections to see what is new in a certain area.
I'd like to deal with e-mail more like that. If I think of a certain person I'd like to go to the section about that person and see where I left off with them. I'd like to be able to keep track of how important that person is to me, and I'd like to be reminded. So, if I said it was important, and I don't go looking myself, I'd like to be reminded that I didn't answer that person's last message, or that I promised to do something which I didn't do.
Generally speaking I think we need to give up on the idea that somebody is paying attention, unless they really are. I.e. if you and I are talking right this moment, and you answer what I'm saying, you're obviously paying attention. But just because I send you a letter, or an e-mail, or I leave a message on your answering machine, or I throw a brick through your window, doesn't mean you're receiving my communication. The world is too busy to make a lot of assumptions about how much free mental awareness somebody else has for your communication, unless you're observing it directly. You might be getting a letter per month, or 100 mail bags per day - I don't know.
I can think of possible solutions, and I'm a programmer, so maybe I should go and implement them myselves, as far as the e-mail is concerned. But mainly I wanted to express my frustration, and my observation that no solutions seem to exist at the moment. And I suspect that part of what is needed is a change in thinking.
When things increase beyond a certain level, things change. Either they break down, or some new kind of order emerges, or both. That's probably a key element in evolution. If there's too much stress, or too much chaos, something new appears, something which is better suited to deal with it. And I think it is time for an evolutionary e-mail leap.