Email: a modest proposal

Here’s a sentence that I have yet to hear: “Y’know, I just don’t get enough email.”

I do hear the opposite quite a bit. “Dear Lord, I’ll never get through all this email.” “I have 7,000 unopened messages.” “I want to declare email bankruptcy and just start over.”

Occasionally, some optimistic soul achieves the Nirvana of inbox zero for a blessed moment and, triumphant, posts about it on Facebook…only to watch the counter start clicking skywards again as more email arrives.

Thus is hubris punished, because the only way to receive fewer emails is to send fewer emails, and if you do methodically whittle your inbox down to zero, then in the process of doing so you’ve sent out attention-seeking messages to the world, and the world will respond with email.

Lots of it.

From time to time when I give talks I ask the audience, “how do you feel about email?” The response is a weary chorus of groans.

Forget FOMO (or “Fear of Missing Out”) on social media: the real anxiety-producing, never-ending scourge in our lives is email.

I don’t just have anecdotal evidence and heartburn about email: for years in our Surveying the Digital Future Survey we’ve asked respondents how quickly they feel they ought to reply to online messages: the urgency has grown steadily.

Back in 2003, only 17 percent of Americans thought that people should reply to emails as soon as possible. In the intervening years that 17 percent grew to 43 percent– a nearly 250 percent increase.

Here’s a sample chart from our recent 2017 Digital Future Report:

How quickly should one reply to a personal message received online?
(Internet users)

A tax on our attention

In previous columns, I’ve written about how we need to budget our attention in order to accomplish the things we care about. Famously, this is why Steve Jobs wore his black turtleneck and blue jeans outfit and why Barack Obama only wore blue and grey suits as president: both men did not want to squander attention on, to them, unimportant decisions like clothing.

But you can’t budget attention for email, because it’s like an exam you can’t study for. It’s always a pop quiz: you never know when it will arrive, how many other emails will come along with it, and how much of a homework assignment each email will be for you.

If attention is a currency, then email is a tax on that currency. Moreover, email is often cognitive taxation without representation. As my friend Adam Boettiger has observed, email is “postage due communication.” I can spend thirty seconds writing an email that will cost you an hour of your life: there’s no symmetry or balance. This is one reason why I find myself reaching for the phone more often these days: at least if we’re on the phone together then you and I are spending the same amount of time on a topic.

(By the way, in this column I’m only talking about the proper uses of email. I’m not, for example, addressing the email abusers who recklessly CC or BCC people, the people who violate the prime directive and fail to change the subject line when they change the topic in a thread, or the sneaky marketing messages that start arriving when you’ve asked only for a newsletter.)

The reason why we all send and receive too much email is clear: it’s free for us, private individuals, to send as many emails as we want. (If you’re running a business or a publication then different, commercial email rules apply.)

And that’s the problem: once I’ve paid for my internet connection and logged into my free email account, then it doesn’t cost me anything beyond my compositional time to send you an email that will — at minimum — steal a little bit of your attention as you look at the subject line in order to decide whether or not to open it.

I have an idea about how to reduce the number of emails we send and receive.

A modest proposal

It shouldn’t be free for you to send me email, and the reverse is also true. I should pay to send you email.

It’s not free to send a paper letter via the Post Office, so why should it be free to send a digital letter? Obviously, the logic that we have collectively agreed on since the dawn of email is that since a person doesn’t have to buy an envelope and a stamp, and another person doesn’t have to deliver the letter to your mailbox later, there’s no cost to email.

But this mistakes the paper vehicle of “snail mail” for the actual goal of sending a letter. I’m not sending a physical letter because I have too many pieces of paper and stamps lying around. I’m investing my money and effort in getting your attention.

With email, that investment disappears, leaving only the effort, which isn’t much, but the communication is still attempting to get my attention.

I propose that the fine people at the United States Postal Service (who already have this expertise and need new revenue streams) create a subscription-based platform where each individual sets a rate of how much it will cost anybody — a person, a business — to send that person an email.

If I want people to be able to reach me easily, then I’ll only charge a penny. On the other hand, if I want to minimize the attention tax I have to pay every time I receive an email, then I’ll charge a higher fee: ten cents, a quarter, a dollar… although only after I’ve paid for my own sent emails first.

While this could turn email into an unethical or just-plain-rude profit center, any email recipient concerned about this sort of thing could simply donate all email-gleaned funds to charity.

There should be no exceptions to this rule, just as there are no exceptions at the Post Office for sending physical mail. Companies spend lots of money on postage for brochures, catalogs and other promotions. Publications spend money on postage for magazines. The same should be true of email.

At your job, even inter-office mail should require a fee — companies should give each employee a budget for email the way that many companies pay for an employee’s mobile phone. This is the only way to give the reckless reply-all correspondent pause before sending the same message to 53 recipients when only two people need it.

In 1971, the great polymath Herbert Simon observed, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Making email fee-based rather than free would both reduce the amount of email that we receive and also reduce the cost of the attention we spend on the emails that remain.

If we reduce the amount of information flooding into our awareness every waking minute, then perhaps we can stop being paupers in our attention.

[Cross-posted at the Center for the Digital Future.]

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