All right, confess. Do you feel nervous and anxious if you haven’t checked your e-mail in the past five minutes? Do you experience a thrill when you see you have new messages waiting, or a pang of disappointment when there’s nothing new? Do you put your iPhone or Blackberry under the pillow and check it for messages last thing at night and first thing in the morning?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, don’t be ashamed. You’re not alone. According to author and editor John Freeman, many of us are addicted to e-mail. In his new book, The Tyranny of E-Mail, he confesses:
“Six months before beginning this book, I was receiving two to three hundred messages a day. I would log on in the morning and watch new e-mail march down my Outlook screen with a small bubble of joy -- I was needed! -- and a mountain of dread: if I didn’t respond to these messages, I would offend people, miss out on some key piece of business, add to the ever-increasing backlog of messages that was growing like a mulch pile in leaf season.”
The Tyranny of E-Mail provides a wealth of fascinating and frightening statistics about the e-mail deluge:
- 35 trillion e-mail messages were sent in 2007
- 300 million messages are sent every minute
- the average corporate worker in the United States spends 40% of their workday sending and receiving an average 200 e-mails
- 62 percent of Americans check their e-mail on vacation
- 67 percent of them say they’ve checked their e-mail in bed
(On a local note, Freeman says that in 1986, 1,500 students and faculty at Simon Fraser University were using e-mail, sending between 10,000 and 20,000 messages each month. Twenty years later, there were more than 40,000 e-mail accounts at SFU, and users were sending 10 million e-mails per month, a 14,000 percent increase.)
Eye-catching, out-of-context statistics aside, Freeman makes some valid points about e-mail in his book. We wake up, download our e-mails, and we then let those e-mails determine our day for us. We’re not in charge of our lives anymore -- the e-mails we receive have taken over.
How valid is Freeman’s argument? Andrew Feenberg teaches at Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication. A renowned scholar in the field of philosophy of technology, he agrees that e-mail sometimes does get overwhelming -- “I think I’m on the receiving end of those 10 million SFU e-mails each month,” he jokes. He says that e-mail makes us more efficient -- “I can maintain correspondence with people all over the world, and I don’t have to label envelopes and buy stamps. Also the formalities aren’t required -- you don’t even have to say ‘dear so-and-so’ anymore.” But at the same time, e-mail exhibits a paradoxical effect in that “the number of people you can be in touch with has multiplied far faster than the gains in efficiency that email makes possible.”
It’s difficult to get off the e-mail treadmill, even if we want to, according to The Tyranny of E-Mail. And often we don’t want to, Freeman says. E-mail is addictive. He quotes University of Sheffield psychologist Tom Stafford to explain why. E-mail works on what is called the principle of variable interval reinforcement schedule, Stafford says. “Rather than reward an action every time it’s performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there’s something wonderful - an invite out, or maybe some juicy gossip - and I get a reward.” When your e-mail program chimes or otherwise alerts you to new messages, you feel a thrill and interrupt what you’re doing to see if that juicy message has come through, in other words.
Some of the dangers of e-mail, according to the book:
- misunderstood messages (50% of e-mails are misinterpreted, Freeman says);
- rudeness (we’re more aggressive in our electronic communications because we can’t see the recipient. In normal human intercourse, we look into the other person’s eyes and mirror neurons fire up in our brain, increasing our empathy with them -- it doesn’t happen in text exchanges);
- spam (100 billion spam messages are sent every day);
- phishing (hackers are getting more sophisticated in sending messages allegedly from your bank or other site, asking you for password and account information);
- lack of closure (how can you know when an e-mail conversation has concluded -- is the other person waiting for your “thank you” and will think you rude if you don’t respond again?)
Freeman cites the example of legendary computer scientist Don Knuth of Stanford University, who discontinued his e-mail address on January 1, 1990 (Knuth encourages people to send him a letter written on paper and says he responds in “batch mode” every three months.) But SFU’s Feenberg thinks this is extreme: “For my work, e-mail is essential. It’s extremely useful for setting up appointments, and maintaining contacts with people all over the world. We can’t go back to handwritten letters. At least I can’t. There are people who can do correspondence but I was never a good correspondent until I had e-mail.”
Can anything be done to stem the e-mail tide? Freeman offers some tips:
- Don’t send. “Before you send a message,” Freeman advises, “ask yourself: Is this message essential? Does it need to arrive there instantly? Why am I sending it?”
- Don’t check your e-mail first thing in the morning or late at night. You’re not at your best at these times. Also, not checking your e-mail at these times will reinforce a boundary between your work and your private life. “Checking your e-mail first thing at home doesn’t give you a jump on the workday; it just extends it.”
- At most, check your e-mail only every hour.
- Keep a written to-do list and let that guide your priorities. Add any e-mail priorities to this list.
- Give good e-mail. Keep your messages short; make the subject line meaningful; type “No response needed”; don’t send people multiple e-mails.
- Read the entire message before responding. This will help prevent misunderstandings and multiple responses.
- Don’t debate complex or sensitive matters by e-mail. The lack of visual cues, the asynchronous nature of e-mail and the law of averages (half of all e-mails are misunderstood) almost guarantee that something will go wrong. Talk in person preferably, or, if that’s impossible, on the telephone, or using Skype or visual chat.
- If you’re going to have to work with a group of people through e-mail exchanges, try to ensure you meet face-to-face before the project starts.
- Set up your desk to do something besides e-mail. Have some space where you can jot notes, or doodle, or read documents and books on paper.
- Schedule media-free time each day.
All good ideas: I should e-mail them to all my friends...