Saturday, March 21, 2009

Information Architecture: email overuse

Any computer scientists in the audience? I often find myself pondering what kinds of communications/IT tools (e.g. email, blogs, forums, wikis) are best suited for various purposes. I'm sure computer scientists and software engineers must have an official name for this field of inquiry, but for now I'll just call it 'information architecture'. Anyway, I'm especially struck by how organizations typically over-rely on email communications, even when it should be clear that it isn't the right tool for the job.

For example, a work team (or academic department) will typically use mass emailing as their primary (or even sole) form of digital communication. But email is very poorly suited as a medium for large-group discussion. I see two major reasons for this: (1) the discussion is scattered across myriad individual emails, making it more difficult to refer back to past installments, and easier to lose replies. (2) Not everyone in the group will be interested in every such discussion, and so may not appreciate having their inbox cluttered by the constant stream of babble. A discussion board or 'forum' solves both these problems. So I think any such team (or department, etc.) that's likely to benefit from such discussions should ensure that they have a dedicated forum for this purpose.

A second example that jumps out at me is notification. Don't get me wrong: email is great for issuing one-off, instant notifications that may be of interest to others in one's team (department). But for serial or regular use, greater customization is called for. It's just plain rude for (say) the Italian Studies department to spam me every week about their upcoming public lectures. Rather than forcing such notification on students in other departments against our will, they should simply offer an RSS feed (or similar) which we may choose to subscribe to or not.* Similar lessons apply to trans-institutional announcements, e.g. conference announcements, "calls for papers", etc. It's completely backwards to rely on ad hoc email forwarding (all those "please distribute" emails sent to department secretaries) for this sort of thing. Better communications infrastructure should be put in place. For example, the 'PhilosophyCFP blog', if sufficiently well-implemented (I haven't looked closely), could render all those annoying CFP emails redundant.
* (Indeed, an optimally organized university would centralize such offerings, letting us pick and choose which departmental -- or even sub-field -- public notification lists we want to opt in or out of.)

These lessons may even apply to regular intra-departmental announcements: though I don't mind these as much, it wouldn't hurt to set things up so that recipients can pick and choose which regular departmental notifications they wish to receive. (But in this case, at least, the benefits might be modest enough as to not be worth the bother of setting up a better communications infrastructure.)

Of course, email overuse is a small crime in the grand scheme of things -- i.e. compared to the inexcusable overuse of snail mail. But don't get me started on the absurdity of requiring (e.g.) job applicants to transmit their information on dead trees...

P.S. Is there a standard administrative support position with this job description, i.e. an 'informational architect' to investigate ways the organization could streamline its communications? There should be.


  1. Along with blogs, wikis are becoming a popular solution. They are nice because they provide a central point for collaboration without the email trail. They can also be set up so only approved users can edit them if that is an issue. Most good wiki software also creates an RSS feed, either for the entire wiki site or individual pages, so people can choose to subscribe and be notified when there are changes.

    This could possibly work instead of the forum you mentioned, but it would also work well as a place to post announcements and schedules for upcoming events.

  2. Wikis are most useful in cases where the goal is to incrementally produce some final product (page/document). But other tools seem better suited for other tasks, including those I discussed.

  3. Until feeds, wikis and fora replace email as a form of communication in those areas where they enjoy a comparative advantage, filters or rules can be of considerable help in dealing with high email volume.

  4. True. (Lifehacker suggests some helpful filters here.)


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