How quickly should you reply to email?

I’m a judgemental email sender and an anxious email recipient. When I send someone an email, I judge them based on their response time: instant? slow? eternal?

And by judgement, let me be clear: I’m not judging them on their email skills alone. Increasingly, I use email response time as an indicator of someone’s intrinsic worthiness as a human being. Non-responders are rude and unreliable; instant responders are clearly people with too much time on their hands.

Of course, my readiness to judge others leads me to assume that others are judging me: thus, my anxiety about how quick I respond to the latest missive in my inbox. An email happens to arrive just as I’m doing my brain-clearing inbox-check; the answer is easy, so I might as well respond instantly. But will that make me look like an idle slacker? Or maybe the email isn’t so easy-to-answer, so I set it aside, and then suddenly remember the unanswered message a week later: Oh no! They’ll think I’m a total flake!

All this judging — of self and others —  reminds me of the famous George Carlin line: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” On email, the same principle holds true: people who reply (much) faster have too much time on their hands, and people who reply (much) slower are simply rude.

But in the normal curve of email response times, where are the cut-off points? What’s the speed of email response that makes someone look unpardonably slow? Suspiciously fast? I’m curious to hear what the response time is that you think constitutes the cut-off line on each side of the curve.

Normal curve of email response times

5 essential steps to online security

Today’s practice: Tighten your online security.

You’d think that writing a dissertation about political computer hacking would make a girl sensitive to the challenges of online security. And it has, up to a point. But I recently decided to up my level of tech security, and in the process discovered some handy new tools that make good security easier to achieve.

Securing your computer, accounts and home against these security threats can take some work, but it’s well worth the effort, particularly if any of the following risk factors apply to you:
  • You work with sensitive data (like health, legal or financial records)
  • You are a public figure or work with/for a public figure
  • You have a current or past relationship with someone who has harassed or stalked you on- or offline
  • You have a friend or family member who has been harassed or stalked
  • You work in or with organizations and countries where cyber-surveillance or hacking is common (like China, Russia and Iran)
  • You or someone in your household has been a victim of identity theft at any time
If you do only 5 things (yes, it’s a lot — but they all matter!) make them these:
  1. Install anti-malware software to catch any spyware on your computer and prevent future intrusions. Quick pick: Norton Internet Security 2012 for Windows. DO THIS BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING ELSE.
  2. Use a strong password. Test its strength using  http://howsecureismypassword.net/  and don’t use any password that can be hacked in less than a year.
  3. Setup phone verification for your e-mail account, like Gmail’s two-step verification.
  4. If your email account is linked to a second, recovery account, make sure it’s secure too — otherwise anyone who has access to that recovery account can get access to your primary account.
  5. If someone else has ever had access to your phone, wipe it and reinstall your software from your computer. Only install applications you know and use; it’s possible someone else has installed an application that is spyware.

Be the e-mailer you wish to see in the world

How many people do you receive e-mail from that you read and reply to every single time?

I’m guessing it’s just a handful: Your best friend — the one who sends you short periodic updates with a single recent photo, not the one who sends you weekly 2-pagers. The super-smart former colleague, now a rising star at another firm, who e-mails you two or three times a year with useful introductions or a succinct request for help you can actually provide. The client who sends you the latest round of project notes in a friendly, tightly-edited bullet list. And maybe, for the sake of self-preservation, your boss (unless your boss is one of those 45-separate-emails-a-day types, at which point I bet you’re doing some subject line-based triage.)

What do these correspondents have in common? Each one offers:

  • A benefit for reading each message: it’s pleasurable or it helps you do your job better/more efficiently
  • A limited claim on your attention (both in the frequency and length of messages)
  • Emotional gratification: the tone of their messages reinforces your positive feelings about your relationship (and if your boss consistently writes in a way that doesn’t make you feel positive, it’s time to consider a move)

In other words, each of these correspondents provides a high return on investment — either because the time required to read their correspondence is very low, or the pay-off is relatively high (compared to the other messages in your inbox).

This is the kind of e-mail correspondent we should each aspire to be. But it’s not something you can achieve by signing a manifesto or adding a sig line that says “I hope you enjoyed this friendly, concise and valuable message.”

You’ve got to get there by actually writing the kind of messages you want to receive — and only those messages. You’ve got to ask three questions of each message you send, before you send it:

  1. What problem does this e-mail solve, or what benefit does it offer, for the person I’m writing to?
  2. Could I make this e-mail shorter? If I’m going to e-mail this person again today or this week, could I usefully combine multiple messages into one?
  3. Does the tone of this e-mail reflect my affection and respect for the person I’m writing to?

Ask yourself these three questions, and you can become the kind of e-mailer you wish to see in the world. If we each work towards that goal, we can look forward to a day when opening our inboxes is a moment of delight rather than dread.

Leaning into online struggles

The fourth time I got a call from the principal’s office, I knew I had to rethink our school year. One of our kids was having a tough time in class, and I had already made several visits to the teacher, the classroom and the principal’s office. Not only was I worried about my kid, I was also stressing out on the work front (after ducking out of a couple of meetings to make emergency trips to school) and at home (where Rob and I were in daily negotiations over how to handle successive crises). If only I could find the magic switch that would make school days an effortless, serene experience for both kids, we could get back to our real life: you know, the life in which I drop the kids in the morning, press pause on my life as a parent, and resume family life at 5:30 for a few delightful hours each evening.

After that fourth call, it was time to let go of the fantasy. This, it seems, is the new reality: a reality in which the daily challenges of school are my challenges as well as my kids’. Instead of the emergency visits that might come at any time, we decided to schedule daily visits to school, so both we and our kids would know when one or the other parent was going to appear. We told the teacher to count on our regular arrival time, and to set aside work we could do to be helpful while we were in the classroom. We opened our calendars, and made a schedule of who would cover which days. We stopped resisting, and decided to lean in.

“Leaning in” is the practice of accepting what you have tried to avoid, resist, or struggle against. As Tara Brach puts it in Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha,

As we lean in, we are inviting, moving toward what we habitually resist. Leaning in allows us to touch directly the quivering, the shakiness, the gripping tightness that is fear. Whether it is a familiar but vague feeling of anxiety or a strong surge of fear, leaning in can help us become aware and free in the midst of our experience.

Leaning in is a practice I have explored before, at other moments when life has presented challenges that I failed to avoid, escape or overcome. The job that exhausted and depressed me but which I couldn’t bear to quit. The romance that sagged with the weight of weekly conversations about a possible breakup. The family relationship that was profoundly estranged, but not totally abandoned. Each time I leaned in — allowing myself to hate the job, suspend the continual evaluation, admit the absence — space opened up, and the relationship shifted.

Yet it’s a practice I must rediscover each time, almost as if I’d never had this lesson. Only when every other avenue has closed do I remember that acceptance is still an option. And only with that acceptance do I discover that it brings not simply relief, but often great joy.

As I’ve renewed my acquaintance with this experience of leaning in, I’ve found myself wondering how it might apply to life online. There are so many online challenges that we resist or struggle against, trying to return to some extinct (and often idealized) version of a pre-Internet existence.

The most immediate example is no further than your inbox. How I’ve struggled with the onslaught of email, even going so far as to declare a vendetta! And yet the one person I know who seems to have made peace with that onslaught is a colleague who told me that he makes a point of processing every single message he receives, and responding to every single email that warrants an answer. The rest of his life bends around this core commitment. When he described this practice to me, it seemed somewhere between unfathomable and crazy, but now I see it: he’s leaning in.

Of course, it’s not always obvious what leaning in would actually look like. If you’re overwhelmed by the pressure to blog, tweet and Facebook, does leaning in mean committing to a daily practice on all three fronts? Or does it mean taking a social media break, and giving yourself the freedom to live offline? If you’re obsessed with your Klout, do you throw yourself into reaching the highest number, or throw in the towel and go Klout-less? If you dread what feels like a mandatory email session each weekend, do you go entirely offline from Friday night to Monday morning, or carry your Blackberry and set it to buzz you as soon as a message arrives?

I think you’ll know the answer when you embrace one of those apparent extremes. If you’re still struggling and suffering, you’ve probably leaned the wrong way. If you’ve given yourself fully to that choice, and you find that the sense of struggle has evaporated, you’re on the right track — even if the act of leaning in takes a lot of work in and of itself. There’s a difference between work and struggle.

In our recent struggle at school, leaning in has been nothing short of transformative. After years of waving vaguely to the gaggle of girls that greet my daughter at the edge of the school grounds, I’m joining them for lunch and learning their names, their favourite foods and their latest gossip. I know which of my son’s classmates need reminders to put on their outdoor shoes, and who needs help opening a thermos. When we sit down to dinner as a family, I know which of the day’s events to ask about, and which are better left forgotten.

And instead of dreading the ringing phone that tells me an emergency visit is once again required, I get the joy of anticipating a midday break with a bunch of wriggling, joyful kids. Some of the best moments of the past weeks are those I’ve spent in an elementary school classroom: introducing kids to the grasshopper who appeared in our laundry hamper, thinking up math puzzles that speak to the division of cupcakes, teaching little ones to draw a triangle. They’re not experiences I would have sought out, or even imagined I’d enjoy. But in leaning in, I’ve not only found relief from a painful struggle, but delight in discovering new parts of myself.

Why I like to check my email

Recently I’ve been trying to follow my friend Leda’s advice on taming the compulsive need to pull my iPhone out any spare moment: the eight seconds in which the grocery clerk is running a price check, the twenty seconds it takes to walk to the bathroom, the thirty-seven seconds between ordering my Americano and receiving it. It feels schmucky, especially when it means I am looking at a screen instead of a person who is just trying to help me: you’re bagging my groceries, and I can’t even talk to you for ten seconds?

Leda’s advice was to resist pulling out the phone during any empty time of less than 5 minutes. That doesn’t sound like a high bar, but honestly it rules out about 95% of my non-phone iPhone usage (because if I have more than 5 minutes available, and I want to do something online, I almost always use my iPad).

Here’s the problem: I like to check my email. This is a problem I have focused on taming with my strategies for breaking the habit of compulsive e-mail and Twitter check-ins; in exceptional cases, I even set up mail rules that forward an eagerly-awaited e-mail to my phone. But still I can’t resist the urge to whip out my phone during each micro-pause, in case there is some gem awaiting my attention.

There’s no question it’s incredibly distracting or even (in the grocery scenario) rude. But there is a sunny side to this equation, too. We check our emails not only because the boss expects it, or a client demand it, or because we are inescapably terrified of missing something for even three minutes. We check our emails because there are people we love or respect or simply want to stay connected to, and email is the way to do that. Email is, increasingly, our emotional anchor.

It’s a sentiment that is summed up in its most charming form by a song that has become an anthem in our house: Pete Combe’s I like to check my email.

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/24245712″]

8 ways to beat the urgency trap in online communications

In a thoughtful post about The Pitfalls of social media, Aleksandr Voinov writes

Social Media exerts pressure on us to do things immediately and respond to everything immediately. I’m not sure about you, but sometimes I like to think things through and discuss it with other people before I respond. Your Twitter and Facebook accounts make this almost impossible. Basically, people can easily bully you into responding AT ONCE.

The temporal pressure Voinov is describing is the same pressure that Sherry Turkle worries about in Alone Together. She argues that

[I]n the technology-induced pressure for volume and velocity, we confront a paradox. We insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think uninterrupted. As we communicate in ways that ask for almost instantaneous responses, we don’t allow sufficient space to consider complicated problems.

The pace of online communications cuts both ways, of course. One of the thrills of online communications is its efficiency — look at how quickly Facebook lets you tell all your friends about your new baby, compared to reaching them one-on-one! — even if that efficiency has its costs (like hearing their joyful congratulations). There’s a charm to the volley of IM or texting, which combines the immediacy of real-time communications with the archival value of transcription. And one of the delights of email in particular (as opposed to a real-time phone call) is that you can respond when it’s convenient for you, rather than being at the mercy of your caller.

But Voinov and Turkle are right in noting that the pace of online communications exacts a toll, particularly now that so many of us have 24/7 Internet access via home connectivity, smartphones, laptops and tablets, such that we can in fact be reachable just about any time. How quickly the theoretical ability to reach someone in a pinch, even on a weekend, has turned into an expectation that any e-mail, sent any time, should get a same-day (or even same-hour response). It’s wonderful that I can get other people to reply to my inquiries at any time, but I wish I didn’t have to reply to theirs.

When I recently asked my friends and colleagues for their advice on how to live online, one of the tips that has most disquieted me spoke to this exact conundrum. My friend Leda Dederich posed a tempting but daunting challenge:

Resist the tennis match! Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you have to respond immediately. Invoke your letter writing days. Don’t be afraid of “delayed responses”. Meaningful communication depends on it.

I am deathly afraid of delayed responses. And in musing on Leda’s advice, as I have for the past month, I’ve come up with a range of strategies and practices that can help you mitigate the (often illusory) urgency of online communications, while still allowing you to enjoy the benefits of its rapid pace. Here are 8 ways you can conquer the urgency imperative:

  1. Create an alternate inbox. If you’re obsessed with Inbox Zero, it’s easy to let that obsession drive the pace of your online communications. When I’ve just been through the ordeal of getting my inbox back to empty, I find myself racing to reply to messages just so that I can delete them from my inbox. A better approach is to create a “holding tank”: put messages that you want to reply to later in there, and process them when it makes sense for you. If you feel tempted to reply to a message just to get rid of it, force yourself to
  2. Stick to a schedule. The pace of your online communications is largely determined by the expectations other people have for how quickly you reply…but you get to drive those expectations. Once people discover that you answer every email within 15 minutes, even on a Saturday, I can guarantee you’ll be getting email 7 days a week. Decide on the hours when you’ll be available for each online channel — you may want to keep different hours for email, Facebook, Twitter and IM — and be scrupulous about only replying or sending messages during your designated windows.
  3. Use multiple devices. Separating home and work phones isn’t just for people who work in Blackberry offices but want an iPhone for fun. You might like a two-phone lifestyle if you want to shut off company calls during evenings and weekends. (Just get very clear on your office policy and your boss’ expectations.) Similarly, you may want to have a separate computer (or maybe a tablet) for messing around online after hours, without the temptation of checking (and replying to) email.
  4. Use multiple accounts. I keep my online communications simple by forwarding all of my 87 email addresses to a single Gmail account so that I can check them all in one place. (No, I don’t actually have 87 email addresses…it just feels that way.) But I can still check any one of those accounts separately, so when I go on vacation I make a point of only checking the email address I use for strictly personal correspondence. That way I don’t get a work email and feel anxious about responding to it.
  5. Send later. Just because you like to handle your incoming communications between 7-10 pm doesn’t mean you have to reply to evening communications in real time. It can be very useful to tackle your overflowing inbox after hours, but it defeats the purpose of having catch-up time if people start using those evening hours to send you even more inquiries and tasks. By all means, draft your replies in the evening or on weekends (if that’s when you want to work) but set those messages on a time delay so that they actually send during the window you have scheduled for e-mail. Use the send later feature  in Outlook, a service like LetterMeLater or an extension like Boomerang for Gmail. Use a tool like HootSuite to queue up your tweets and Facebook updates so they go out during your scheduled social media hours. Remember, the point isn’t (just) about limiting when you handle your various inboxes: it’s about setting other people’s expectations for the times of day when they might hear from (or reach) you.
  6. Create exceptions. Maybe you like the idea of limiting your online communications to certain hours of the day, but there’s somebody (or a few somebodies) stopping you. If you’re reading this post and thinking “I don’t want my boss to think she can’t reach me after hours!”, “I can’t turn off my cell phone in case the babysitter calls!” or “But if I turn off IMs, I won’t get my husband’s sexy noon-hour messages!” then you need to create an exception (or two) before you create your new only-sometimes-on communications scheme. Set up a gmail rule that notifies you by SMS when your boss emails, and copies those emails to a separate address (so you can read her email without seeing everything else that is piling up in your inbox over the weekend.) Get a super cheap pre-paid cell phone that you can take with you on date nights, give that number to your sitter, and leave your Blackberry at home. Create a separate IM account that you can stay logged into even when your main Skype, MSN or AIM account is set to “away”, and never miss a dirty message from your sweetie. You may have to do a little extra work to set up new ways for your exceptions to reach you, but it’s worth the effort if it allows you to turn off the rest of the world.
  7. Set a minimum response time. Many of us work in organizations that have a formal or informal standard for the maximum acceptable response time: all client inquiries should get a reply by end of business, all emails should get a reply within 24 hours, all tweets should get an answer within 2 hours. That is good for your business but bad for your sanity. So make sure you also set a minimum response time for each channel: the number of minutes, hours or even days that must elapse before you reply to a message. You can set a different minimum for each channel: maybe Facebook only needs a 3-minute delay (imagine your funny wall comment, take a breath, read the next person’s comment, come back, leave your own comment) but email needs 24 hours (so you ensure that all your emails are sent with the benefit of some level of reflection, and you avoid the problem of email volleyball). You need minimums for your own personal response times (to force yourself to breathe before you answer) and you can also look at setting minimum response times for your department or organization (to encourage more thoughtful responses). And whatever your minimum response time is, make sure you quadruple it for any message that has made you angry (so you reply calmly).
  8. Focus on quality instead of speed. One of the reasons it’s hard to resist the rapid-fire pace of online communications is that we get lots of positive feedback for being quick responders, and negative feedback for being slow. Get back to someone in 10 minutes and they are likely to thank you for it; wait a day to handle that email and you may get a tweet, text or call asking why you haven’t replied. Hearing praise or complaints about how other people handle their online communications (“I love how she always replies to my tweets within 5 minutes” or “He is terrible about replying to email”) further reinforces the sense that we are judged by the speed of our replies. But you can help break that habit by talking about the quality (rather than speed) of other people’s messages, and by focusing on building a reputation for quality in your own. For guidance on how to improve the quality of your messages, check out Stever Bridger’s post about how to write better emails or the Hopkinson Report on how to write great tweets.

Do you have ideas about how to escape the urgency trap in online communications? Tweet your ideas to @awsamuel or leave them in the comments field below….very slowly.

Are you a parent traveling on business? Here are 15 tips for taking the kids

When I first wrote this post in October 2006, LilPnut was only a few months old, and didn’t even have his twitter handle yet. (Who can blame him? Twitter had barely been invented.) Almost five years later we have lots more experience traveling with the kids, and are much less ambitious about integrating business and personal travel. (Partly because it’s harder to keep a 5-year-old quiet, even in the era of iPads.) But I still had a couple new tips to add here, and I think the rest of the post is as relevant as ever, especially to parents with younger children.

I’ve recently become an adventurer in the world of business travel with baby — in this case, our son, now almost 4 months old. He’s now attended three different conferences, and from these experiences I’ve gleaned a few bits of wisdom that I wanted to capture and share:

  1. Think twice. Business travel is WAY easier without a kid, so don’t undertake it unless you really need to. That said, don’t let the challenges of business travel dissuade you from doing what’s best for your own work and family — particularly if traveling with your child will allow you to continue providing the benefits of breastfeeding.
  2. Start small. My first conference-with-kid experience was an informal, local, one-day event (let’s hear it for BarCamp Vancouver!) that let me alpha test our baby’s ability to quietly endure a meeting before I braved taking him on the road.
  3. Know your kid. Think about whether he or she can be quiet in meetings, and also whether you can meet her needs (for food, entertainment, and attention) while in a business setting. I happen to have a very easy and quiet baby, but I sure wouldn’t bring my three-year-old to one of these things. And since kids are constantly changing, you need to re-think your kid’s road-worthiness before each and every trip.
  4. Defer to your colleagues. If you’re attending a conference or client meeting with your kid, make sure to put your colleagues’ comfort first. Identify a location where you can nurse or entertain your kid if he starts to cry or disturb the proceedings.
  5. Buddy up. At the last conference I attended I was lucky to have a buddy — the lovely Katrin Verclas — who jumped in to lend a hand. Katrin volunteered to hold the baby at a few key moments, including dinnertime (my first two-handed dinner in months!!) Having the support of a buddy made all the difference to my experience.
  6. Forewarned is forearmed. Let meeting organizers or clients know if you’ll be bringing your kid, and give them a chance to tell you if their setting is not child friendly. When I attended the fabulous Online Community Summit, I checked with conference organizers before registering; their welcoming attitude helped me feel comfortable about participating. After the success of that venture, I didn’t worry about forewarning the folks at the Blog Business Summit; they’ve been fantastically accommodating, but I’m sure they’d have appreciated a chance to consider the challenges in advance.
  7. Scale your expectations. If you attend a conference with your kid, be prepared to miss big chunks of presentations and social events so that you can step out and attend to your kid’s needs.
  8. Scale your budget. Be prepared to spend more money than you usually would to make your trip as easy as possible — stay at the nearest hotel, get valet parking, order room service. And if you’re evaluating whether a conference or client visit is worth undertaking with child, consider not whether the event is worth the cost in and of itself – consider if it will still be worth the cost of a no-expense-spared approach, even if you miss half the conference sessions.
  9. Your kid is part of your presentation. Whenever you attend a conference or client meeting, you think about your self-presentation. When you’re attending with a kid, your kid becomes part of that presentation. So make sure your kid has a clean face, clean clothes, and behaves well.
  10. Connect with your kid. Don’t forget to interact with him. or there’s no point in having him along.
  11. Connect with your colleagues. If you travel with a well-behaved kid, you’ll find that many of your colleagues will be warm and welcoming — particularly the other parents in the room. Make the most of this chance to connect with colleagues on a personal level: one of the things I’ve enjoyed about traveling with my baby is the chance to hear from other parents about their own experiences juggling work and family. How else would I have left a business blogging summit with the URL of a great attachment parenting blog? I’ve really appreciated hearing from other moms who remember the challenges of life with a new baby, and whose support — whether it’s holding the baby so I can use the bathroom, or cheering me on for trying this juggling act — remind me that I’m not the only woman out there trying to combine work and motherhood.
  12. Accept non-acceptance. While the vast majority of your colleagues are likely to be encouraging and supportive, some people may not be happy to see a baby at a business event. Accept that some people aren’t going to like seeing your baby, the same way they might not like what you’ve got to say or what you’re wearing. Anticipate those reactions, and know in advance which accommodations you’re willing to make for others. But don’t let concern about other people’s reactions push you into sharing more information about your circumstances than you feel comfortable disclosing, or into a decision that jeopardizes your child’s well-being or your professional or personal integrity.
  13. UPDATE: Draw a line between work and family time. Combining family travel with business travel can be a great (and economical) experience, but it works best when you are very clear about how and when to draw the line. Maybe you’re unavailable to your family for the first three days of a conference, but the next ten days are family time; maybe mornings are for meetings and afternoons are for kids and fun. Just make sure that you, your spouse and your colleagues are all agreed on those limits beforehand, and that you communicate the expectations to your kids.
  14. UPDATE: Make room for your family. We’ve had terrific success lining up housing swaps in four different cities, mostly using Craigslist. Unlike a conference or business hotel — which may be only marginally welcoming to children, and crawling with colleagues who will give you the hairy eyeball if your kids go tearing down a hallway — a home exchange ensures your family has a home base while you’re on the road. If you can swap with a family that has similarly-aged kids, you’re likely to land in a setting that is well set-up for your needs.
  15. Cheer yourself on. When I first started using my laptop at conferences, about ten years ago, people used to ask me to put it away — they found the key tapping disturbing. Ten years later, everyone has their laptops out to take meeting notes (or check their e-mail!) That culture shift happened gradually — and a similar culture shift has to happen around children. The more that thoughtful parents include their well-behaved children in their professional lives, the more we’ll break down the cultural wall that separates the public and private spheres — a wall that has historically served to keep women and men in separate worlds. So give yourself a cheer for bringing baby along: you’re not just helping your family or business, you’re helping make our culture stronger, healthier and more human.

Originally published October 27, 2006.

10 ways spam taught us to focus our attention

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You’ve just read the very first spam message. Sent by Carl Gartley on behalf of Gary Thuerk, this message went to several hundred ARPANET members on May 3, 1978. The message violated the until-then standard practice of e-mailing people individually (ah, those were the days!) and annoyed a whole lot of ARPANET users. It also sold some computers. And thus, the era of spam marketing was born.

It’s customary to curse the name of Thuerk, though Thuerk himself uses fatherespam as his LinkedIn profile URL, and prominently cites his role in creating spam as a professional credential. (Guess he decided to embrace it sometime after this interview.) But I think that Gary Thuerk is owed more than a sarcastic thank you.

After all, spam — now estimated at more than 75% of e-mail traffic — has been one of the major drivers of online innovation. To cope with “Pandora’s Inbox”, we’ve had to develop attention and information-management systems that prove crucial for surviving today’s communications-rich environment.

Spam is the vaccine for your attention span. It’s the toxin that has stimulated our immunity system’s defenses. Thanks to spam, we’ve had to find technical, social and personal ways of keeping our eyes on the 22% of e-mail that isn’t pure junk, and to avoid the 78% that is.

Those tools and tactics turn out to serve us very well in the era of social media. Now that people generate content and communications in ways that go well beyond e-mail, we need to focus in ways that go far beyond a spam filter. We can thank Gary Thuerk and the spammers of the universe for helping us develop the following ways to focus our attention:

  1. Email filtering: Email filters, which were first created to deal with spam, have since turned into powerful tools for managing and organizing incoming email. I’m utterly dependent on Gmail filters in ways that go way beyond spam elimination. Without spam I might have to read and file my e-mails by hand (shudder).
  2. Attention filtering: Email filters have inspired analogous tools on other platforms. Twitter lists, the Facebook “hide” option and the entire idea of PATH are all about filtering out extraneous content so we can focus our attention on a more limited circle of relationships or a more limited sphere of information.
  3. Texting and messaging: Spam made us impatient about the process of plowing through our inboxes. Texting, chat and Twitter are all instant communications tools that sidestep the whole inbox nightmare by coming to us in real time. (And better yet, by being incredibly short.) Learning to communicate in very brief increments is one of the legacies of spam, and in a world that connects us to hundreds or thousands of people through a wide range of social networks, we can be grateful that some of those conversations happen briefly.
  4. Pull: Email did a fantastic job of teaching us about the limits of push: content that gets pushed to you. As a result many of us have shifted much of our attention onto pull: content that we pull to us by choosing what to visit or subscribe to. For instance, instead of subscribing to e-newsletters, we might subscribe to blog RSS feeds. While e-newsletters are still alive and well, the shift to pull is an essential tool for people trying to manage a very high volume of information.
  5. FOAF: The friend-of-a-friend principle has driven a wide range of social networks in which your interactions are structured around networks of trusted contacts. Relying on networks of trust is a way of getting past the spam problem, by opening communication channels only along lines that mirror pre-existing social relationships. Just think about LinkedIn, which explicitly limits your ability to contact people based on how closely you are connected. That whole model of using social networks to construct boundaries around who gets our attention is in some part thanks to the problem of ungated attention first demonstrated by spam.
  6. Marketing with value: Spam’s assault on e-mail delivery and opening rates first forced marketers to think about what they could actually offer to make an e-mail worth reading. That consciousness and skill set has served marketers well in the social media era, where the competition for attention is even fiercer. If some online marketing now delivers real value to its targets — think the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty or Dell’s Ideastorm — that’s because marketers have learned that providing tangible value is one way to earn people’s attention.
  7. Opt in, opt out: To address the spam problem, many countries have laws that require all bulk e-mails to include an opt-out link, and/or to be sent only by people who have explicitly opted into the mailing list. (Of course, these laws are ignored by all kinds of illegitimate operations, which is why spam volumes remain so high.) This has given us the idea that you don’t demand the attention of someone who hasn’t asked for your content, and that losing someone’s attention is a routine and acceptable part of our communications ecosystem. You can see that principle extended into technologies and practices like the ever-evolving policies on what appears in your Facebook news feed, and the ease of unfollowing people on Twitter.
  8. Ignoring communications: Spam taught us that it was OK to ignore a lot of e-mail. We still have a ways to go in overcoming our notion that all e-mail deserves a reply, but to the extent that we’re asserting some sense of agency over how we allocate our attention, it builds on the foundations established by spam. Once you learn how to ignore offers from Nigerian princes, it gets a lot easier to ignore irrelevant office-wide memos.
  9. Getting rich quick: In a world that delivers daily messages about how you can get rich quick, it’s understandable that we’d lose our patience for long, slow empire-building. Maybe it’s overreaching to blame (or credit) spam for a generation of social media sites built on the business model of, “let’s build something that we can get Yahoo! or Google to buy.” But some of the startups that found their quick return through early acquisition have included some great tools for managing our information and communications (hello, delicious and Radian6).
  10. Penis talk: If we weren’t so constantly deluged by spam ads promoting Viagra, Cialis and penis enlargement, we might think that the size and engorgement of one’s genitalia were strictly personal matters. Thanks to spam, we now know how much people like to think and talk about penises, information that has helped to drive some of the Internet’s most successful entertainment sites. Imagine if we’d wasted all that attention on lady parts instead!

How many e-mail clients do you need?

Jodie Tonita is a lovely person. She is passionate, funny, kind to children and small animals, and an amazing hula-hooper. Unfortunately she was sent by our alien overlords to ensure I never do my actual work.

As evidence, check out this message Jodie left on my Facebook wall:

Wall post from Jodie Tonita asking if the Sparrow email client will change her life

I realize that it is theoretically possible to read a message like that and reply with an “I don’t know, you tell me”. But what Jodie and her alien overlords know is that I am incapable of not trying any kind of productivity app that is put in my path. They know this because they have previously lured me into testing and reviewing about 412,832 different project management and task management applications, at least half of which the overlords built themselves simply to distract me.

But what Jodie and the A.O.s don’t know is that I have figured out a way to defeat them. All I have to do is download or register for the software they have asked about, spend a few hours reading up on, testing and blogging it, and then I can return to my normal life.

That’s the approach I’ve taken to Jodie’s inquiry about Sparrow. The enthusiastic TechCrunch review Jodie pointed me to, combined with a comparative review that said that Sparrow is good for “people who like to try new things” (hello!), got me curious. So I decided to take the free version of Sparrow for a spin: its main limitation is that you can only use it with a single Google account, so if I were to get serious about using it I’d upgrade to the paid client which supports multiple accounts.

And on first glance, Sparrow looks mighty nice. Here’s a glimpse:

Sparrow screenshot has pleasing, Tweetie-like interface

Aesthetically, it’s a big leap forward from Mailplane, the app I currently use when I want access to the Gmail web interface. Mailplane looks like…well, it looks like Gmail:

Mailplane looks exactly like Gmail as you see it in your web browser

That Gmail-ness is a limitation of Mailplane — let’s face it, aesthetics aren’t Google’s strong suit — but it’s also its strength. The whole reason I installed Mailplane is that even though I mostly process email from within Mail.app, there are times when I need to access Gmail directly: typically, when I’m editing mail rules or labels. Mailplane has also made it much easier for me to switch between Gmail accounts, which I need to do occasionally. Sure, I could just use my browser, but I access Gmail’s web interface often enough that it’s very handy to have an application icon sitting in my dock, so that I don’t lose my Gmail window in a sea of browser tabs.

Sparrow can’t replace the Gmail-ness of Mailplane: it’s more of a compromise between the mac-like interface of Mail.app and the Gmail-like interface of Mailplane. If you’re the kind of person who wants to deal with one mail client, and one mail client only, it could be just the ticket.

But I think that many many people benefit from using multiple mail clients. One common scenario is if you maintain one e-mail address for work, and one for personal correspondence: you could access both within either Mail.app or Mailplane, but it can be easier or more relaxing to have completely separate e-mail programs you use for those two different purposes (so you don’t come across that stressful work folder while catching up with pals).

Another scenario is mine: you want the efficiency and aesthetics of Mail.app for your day-to-day e-mail, but the power of Gmail filters, labels and search. Mailplane makes it easy to pop into Gmail without having to use your browser. And it makes it a LOT easier to juggle multiple Gmail accounts: just click on the “accounts” button to open a drawer listing all your accounts, and double-click the account you want to switch into.Account drawer shows list of multiple=

For many people, the answer to this blog’s title question is therefore simple: two. One client for work, and one for home. Or one client for most things, and another client (like Mailplane) for contact with the Gmail interface.

So that’s it, you think: I’m free of Jodie and her alien overloads, at least for today. But it’s not so simple. Jodie’s message reminded me that I’ve been meaning to try out Postbox as an alternative to Mail.app. I’ve only just started the testing process, but I’m already impressed by its optional Facebook and Twitter integration: finally, all my messages in one place! The great reviews Postbox gets from its enthusiasts have pointed me towards other useful features I’ll look forward to testing during my 30-day trial.

You could say this lapse into Postbox testing represents a victory for the overlords. If so, I’m glad they’ve won. Questions like this are what inspire me to try new things, to continue exploring, and thus, to cultivate the range of tech knowledge and skills that are crucial to my work. And in fact, I don’t need a message from Jodie to remember that: she’s one of a handful of people I often picture when I’m writing a blog post, because I know that if I write something that’s useful for her — something that doesn’t just talk tech, but talks about purpose — I’m writing with the right kind of focus and intention.

If you’re a blogger, you need your own Jodie: the person who represents who you’re writing for, and why you’re blogging in the first place. I’m grateful to have a few Jodies, and if the price is obedience to the alien overlords, then it’s a price well worth paying.

Using your e-mail signature to fight inbox overload

It’s day 5 of my vendetta on mandatory e-mail replies and I’m feeling the pain. On the one hand, I’m as committed as ever to changing the attitude that every e-mail needs a response — an attitude that is totally out-of-step with every other channel of online communications, and a major contributor to personal stress. On the other hand (and perhaps not coincidentally) I can’t come up with a system that challenges the expectation of universal reply without becoming a major spammer myself.

The system I initially set up relied on Gmail’s vacation auto-responder to sending out an announcement of my new e-mail attitude in response to all incoming mail. The vacation auto-responder has the virtue of limiting that message to no more than once every 4 days (so people don’t receive it every time they e-mail me), but the major limitation of sending it to anyone who e-mails me…even if it’s a message that I’d normally filter out altogether, or worse, a reply to an e-mail I sent myself. The latter is absolutely unacceptable: when I set up my “e-mail vacation” message in December, I specifically filtered out anyone who was replying to me because it seems unacceptably obnoxious to send an auto-reply to someone who is replying to me! Unfortunately there is no way of combining the no-more-than-once-every-4-days virtue of the vacation message with the nuanced filtering of Gmail filters + canned responses, so I’ve had to kill the auto-responder strategy.

Instead, I’m taking a two-pronged approach:

1. A new e-mail signature that appends the key implications of my e-mail vendetta to any e-mail I send:

Alexandra Samuel, Ph.D.
Director, Social + Interactive Media Centre, Emily Carr University
alex@alexandrasamuel.com | Twitter @awsamuel | 604.726.5445

Join the fight against email overload:

• Focus on your priorities; I’ll understand if you don’t reply.
• Sorry if I don’t reply; I’m trying to focus, too.
• If it’s urgent, reach me by Twitter or SMS.

2. An e-mail signature that makes my old auto-responder message readily deployable, so that I can quickly send it in response to any e-mail I’m worried I may not reply to within 72 hours:

Thank you for getting in touch. I’m currently trying out a new approach to e-mail because (like so many people), I’m facing e-mail overload and can no longer review every message I receive. I still check e-mail regularly but if you don’t get a reply within 72 hours please assume that I have had to focus on other professional or personal priorities at this time. If you’re curious about how and why I’m trying out this alternative to the “mandatory reply” (or tempted to try it yourself!), you can find the details in my recent blog post for Harvard Business Review: http://bit.ly/tB41P
I’m tracking how people feel about getting this message so that I can write a follow-up post to help other people who are interested in joining my little e-mail vendetta. If you are up for sharing your reaction I have set up a one-question poll here: http://bit.ly/evendetta
Thanks in advance for your understanding.

I’ll let you know how that works out.