A game of email

Johnny Holland Stephen Anderson discusses in some considerable detail how it might be possible to add game-like behaviours to email to help people be more effective and achieve Inbox Zero more easily. It’s a very interesting post and I’d love someone to go ahead and build an email client that takes these ideas on board. I think it would be fascinating to see how we might remake our relationship to one of the most pervasive communications medium of the modern world.

But Holland Anderson doesn’t even mention the most important problem: That we send far too much unnecessary email for reasons which are emotional rather than logical. Encouraging people to process their email more effectively is only half the battle. We need to remove as much content as possible from the email system, especially newsletters, notices, FYIs and other forms of occupational spam. We need to empower people not to cover their ass, not to CC their entire department, and not to get sucked into endless and pointless – but very polite – conversations by email.

Until we learn to send less email, learning how to process it is only going to give us a false sense of success and may even encourage us to, well, send more email.

Avatars, faces and the socialisation of enterprise software

I just read a great post by Joshua Porter about the origins of avatars in computing and it made me think about the importance of faces in our online social interactions. It reminded me of a blog post that Kevin Marks wrote in May about faces and trust, which then led me on to posts by Brad Feld and Dave McClure.

Brad talks about the importance of real photos in Twitter, rather than a graphic or cartoon. He then discusses tying photos to people’s contact details on his iPhone and how useful it would be to have the same functionality in email. Dave McClure discusses the importance of faces in a wide range of situations and provides a lot of examples and counter-examples.

Faces are undoubtedly important to us. It’s how we primarily recognise people and those of us who are… let’s say physiognomically challenged find themselves frequently embarrassed at social gatherings because we are expected to be able to recognise people we have met before.

What, then, are the opportunities for enterprise software to become just a touch more social by incorporating avatars? Would email be a less awkward communications mechanism if we were shown a picture of the person we are replying to as we write? Would seeing a photo make us think a little bit harder about how our words might be interpreted by the person on the other end? Or would we end disadvantaging people who aren’t very photogenic? Or encouraging prejudice against those who have characteristics that can be perceived negatively, e.g. white hair triggering ageism.

Why we should care about information overload

Tom Davenport writes that no one cares about information overload anymore. His main thesis appears to be that because no one turns off their phone in meetings, tunes their email filters or turns off their email alerts, that means that information overload is now unimportant. He then tries to conflate that with the aspects of information flow that make turning these things off difficult, i.e. our addiction to the receipt of new and exciting bits of information.

Tom has basically got everything the wrong way round. Information overload still matters, and that few people do something about it should be cause for concern and not a reason to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is ok.

The problem is one of those nasty wicked problems that change shape as you try to solve them. There is a complex interplay between the tools we use to communicate online, our physiological responses to incoming data, our expectations of other people’s expectations of our response to incoming communications, and cultural pressures that cause us to create and disseminate information in specific ways.

This is difficult territory. You can’t just tell people to turn off their email alerts and expect that to do the trick – although I certainly do recommend that as one action to take. Beating the physiological responses to incoming information is going to take a lot of thought and experimentation, but it’s the culture that’s going to be hardest to figure out. How do we change the way that people relate informationally to one another so that we have a healther information landscape?

I don’t have answers to that. But I do know that pretending information overload is an insignificant problem is not a constructive way to deal with it.

Merlin Mann’s Time & Attention talk

I love Merlin Mann’s way of thinking about productivity, the way that we work and our relationship with our working life. This is a great talk that he gave last year about, yes, Time & Attention. Merlin talks about our relationship to email, the usefulness of re-negotiation, and our need to recognise that our time and attention are scarce resources that we should prize more highly.

Well worth a watch.

The role of dopamine in social media

What is it that makes our inbox such an enticing place that we spend hours there every day? It’s a question that fascinates me, mainly because I have such an uncomfortable relationship with email. I get lots of it, am often slow to respond and frequently end up feeling guilty because my email has got the best of me.

Psychologist Susan Weinschenk puts the blame for our obsession on dopamine:

[T]he latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search.


It’s not just about physical needs such as food, or sex, but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes us curious about ideas and fuels our searching for information. The latest research shows that it is the opoid system (separate from dopamine) that makes us feel pleasure.

Wanting vs. liking – According to Kent Berridge, these two systems, the “wanting” (dopamine) and the “liking” (opoid) are complementary. The wanting system propels us to action and the liking system makes us feel satisfied and therefore pause our seeking. If our seeking isn’t turned off at least for a little while, then we start to run in an endless loop. The latest research shows that the dopamine system is stronger than the opoid system. We seek more than we are satisfied (back to evolution… seeking is more likely to keep us alive than sitting around in a satisfied stupor).

A dopamine induced loop – With the internet, twitter, and texting we now have almost instant gratification of our desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type it into google. What to see what your friends are up to? Go to twitter or facebook. We get into a dopamine induced loop… dopamine starts us seeking, then we get rewarded for the seeking which makes us seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, stop checking our cell phones to see if we have a message or a new text.

This sheds much needed light on why we spend so much time checking for new email only to then not deal with it when it has arrived, but there is more to the email problem than dopamine.

There are cultural problems around the use of email as a proxy for productivity; huge email loads being worn as a badge of honour by people who like to equate their inbox martyrdom with a commitment to work; and defensive emailing by people who feel so scared or insecure that they CC everyone. These issues around the sending of mail need to be tackled, probably before we try to tackle our dopamine-fueled inbox obsession.

But as Weinschenk points out, tools like Twitter are just as likely to “send our dopamine system raging”.

So if social media is as addictive as email, isn’t it pointless to try to replace one with the other? I don’t think so, no, because there’s more to it than trying to reduce inbox faffing, as important as that is. It’s also about improving sharing, findability, archiving, collaboration, conversation, staff relationships, morale and efficiency. These benefits, in my opinion, outweigh the potential flaws in the new tools.

We do need to be aware that social media isn’t without its problems, but understanding the fundamental biological and psychological processes that shape the way we interact with technology will help us to solve those problems. I look forward to watching and maybe even participating in the emerging field of technopsychology.