Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reply All

I won't bore you with the details, but in one of my work e-mail accounts this week, I received well over 100 messages related to the same topic. On the day the topic started being discussed, I estimate that I received a new e-mail every five minutes.

Predictably, it didn't take long for the conversation to become a meta-conversation. In other words, while the original conversation continued, a conversation about the conversation also sprung up. Some started to complain about their inboxes becoming cluttered (thereby adding to the clutter), while others defended the e-mail chain's right to exist. One person asked that a particular group of employees be excluded from future mailings, only to see two people from that group chime in and ask that they not be excluded, thereby leading the original person to e-mail a retraction of the request. One person created a virtual message board at a website and urged people to continue the discussion there, while more than one person told everyone to keep e-mailing and avoid the website. And finally, two people sent specific advice about how those uninterested in the conversation could block further e-mails from their inboxes.

In the spirit of Godwin's Law, I could propose a corollary: "As a group e-mail discussion goes longer, the probability that someone will complain about the existence of the discussion approaches one." I've never been a part of an e-mail distribution group in which judicious use of the "Reply All" function is not vigilantly enforced. Of course, this is somewhat understandable: some of us do care about productivity (though personally, I found that reading these e-mails was a nice way to procrastinate on grading papers for a few extra minutes and still feel like I was working).

But even without using the fancy Microsoft Outlook blocking features, I hardly think that anyone's productivity was involuntarily diminished as a result of the e-mails. Given the obvious visibility of the subject lines, I suspect that one uninterested in the conversation could have deleted all of the e-mails in under one minute, or about the time that one spends tying shoes in any given day. And certainly, the amount of time that is spent composing and sending a counter-message is greater than the time needed to delete them.

I realize there is a slippery slope element at work here. Some feel feel that they have to hold the line at a certain point, that by permitting some e-mail conversations to slip through without protest, they are tacitly encouraging a daily inundation. I'm skeptical of such paranoia, and I wonder if it is actually indicative of a deeper fear.

Historically speaking, until recently, the methods by which we allowed the outside world to penetrate our consciousness were finite. At first, for most of the existence of humankind, communications were limited to either those who were in our direct presence, or those who could reach us via written language. The first had a natural filtering mechanism (we literally can't have too many people in the same space), while the second still required the use of costly and limited resources.

But then perhaps Samuel Morse had some vague inkling of the modern e-mail chain when he sent one of the first telegraph messages in 1844: "What hath God wrought." For the next hundred plus years, we would continue to devise communication methods that would make it easier for "senders" to reach more "receivers" with less investment of resources. While we tend to focus on the societal advancements that have resulted, we have also given up control over our ability to filter messages. And each subsequent advancement has resulted in less control.

But not until the development of digital technology has the gap between potential audience penetration and the resources required become so extremely inverted. When we get a load of junk in our (physical) mailboxes, we may be annoyed, but we also know that there are only so many trees in the world, and so much postage that any given sender can afford to pay. But when we get a load of spam (and isn't it interesting that we had to coin a new word to convey our special contempt for junk e-mail?), we feel an extra level of powerlessness. For all we know, this could be the tip of the iceberg. The spammers could be gearing up for an all out digital blitz that would dwarf what we've seen thus far. And even legitimate communications are considered suspect if they exceed a predetermined boundary of restraint we've subjectively erected.

Of course, this phenomenon goes well beyond e-mail. It's entirely possible that the level of "noise" we are attuned to has now exceeded our capability to filter it. Unfortunately, we can't fill out feedback forms on superfluous websites, exhorting them to cease to exist. But sometimes we can take a few minutes to compose an e-mail complaint to unleash into the ether ourselves--ironically doing our part to add to the cacophony.


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