Personal publishing and the future of e-mail

July 31, 2006 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd

David Baker writes on The Future of E-Mail, riffing on an article New Technology, New Media and New Paradigm by Paul Gillilan in the print edition of last month's BtoB Magazine. David quoted from Paul's article:

"We hear a lot about blogs, but blogs aren't important. What's important is personal publishing, or the ability to communicate a message to a global audience almost instantaneously. Personal publishing will permeate electronic media, providing counterpoint to mainstream sources and adding depth and color to the conversation."

"We hear a lot about podcasts, but podcasts aren't important. What's important is time-shifted media. The phenomenon that started with TiVo has spread to digital audio and will soon capture portable video. Information consumers will no longer be beholden to program schedules or even their living rooms. Our TV shows will travel with us."

"We hear a lot about RSS, but RSS isn't important. What's important is the ability to subscribe to information that really interests us. RSS is mainly used to subscribe to blog posts and podcasts. But in the future, they will use it to subscribe to ideas."

David then says:

"So, as someone who aspires to effect a change in the paradigm of digital communications and consumer behavior, I put my spin on the future of e-mail using this same logic. I conclude that we hear a lot about e-mail, but e-mail isn't important. What's important is our ability to communicate in a synchronous and asynchronous fashion in a mixed media world. E-mail will be our notification agent, alarm clock, Post-it® Note, pager, cell phone, fax machine, instant messenger, and document management system all combined. It will be supported on any device via many different sources."

All good quotes. But in my opinion, David is right on what's important, but wrong on email as the medium. Email is a channel that combines notification and content in one bundle, connecting two or more people who have no a priori introduction or interest. The upside is: it's universal and sometimes the introduction or update is invaluable. The downside is: by bundling notification and content email INVITES NOISY, INCOHERENT INTERRUPTION AND DEMANDS TOO MUCH OF THE READER'S ATTENTION - LIKE THIS SHOUTED TEXT. Every incoming email could be a continuation of an old conversation or a new event that you need to read (at least a bit) to see if you care or don't.

"What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. (H.A. Simon as quoted by Hal Varian, Scientific American, Sept. 1995, p. 200)." - from Information Foraging - Peter Pirolli and Stuart K. Card, Psychological Review, Oct 1999

I want less content delivered by email, not more. It's less disruptive to log notification and read content from a journaled medium (blog style), and layer notification, organization, and discovery on top. For notification, I'd prefer a level of urgency explicitly set by those who I trust to use their judgment (family, close friends, business colleagues), combined with a triage mechanism I can independently choose, tune or teach; NetNewsWire on my Mac combined with Traction on TSI's corporate server is a good first step for me.

The trouble with email is that you have to read it to decide if you want to have read it, and keep reading to make sure you haven't overlooked something you really should read. You need to delete, filing, or answering as you go, or deal with your personal slush pile later. We can do better.

See The Evolution of Personal Knowledge Management

I picked up the trail from Personal Publishing in A VC's feed.

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