A Day Without E-mail

Once again, e-mail overload was in the news, which is probably of little or no surprise to regular readers of this space.

When should one sign off?

When should one sign off?

Two Fridays ago, Belgium celebrated a day without e-mail, where people were encouraged to send as few e-mail messages as possible, according to the government minister who organized the event, citing Basex’ research on the cost of Information Overload as part of the justification.

Earlier this week, a writer for the New York Times published 10 Proposals for Fixing the E-mail Glut.  While a few of his suggestions were valid, one of the problems the author failed to mention is that, with e-mail, each knowledge worker uses it a bit differently.

And just yesterday, a report published by the University of California, San Diego, estimated that Americans consumed ca. 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008, which amounts to ca. 34 gigabytes per person per day.

E-mail has become what I call the “path of least resistance.”  It’s frequently used when another – more suitable – tool should be used.  Examples of this range from word processing (writing long documents in e-mail) to instant messaging (asking whether I want Russian dressing on my sandwich is more appropriate via instant messaging than e-mail for a variety of reasons).

In October, a Wall Street Journal writer proclaimed that e-mail’s reign as “king of communications” was over.  Meanwhile more and more e-mail messages are sent every day. (My retort to this is here.)

While the author of that piece raised some valid points, the problem is that changing e-mail’s very nature is a daunting task.

Today, e-mail serves as a common medium that supports rapid and near real-time information exchange for hundreds of millions of people.  Making changes in a small organization can be difficult; just imagine what it would take to change ALL of those people’s ways of working.

Finally, while e-mail may seem to be an unending challenge for the knowledge worker, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.  Information overload is far more complex than too much e-mail.  It’s too much content, poor search tools, the list goes on and on.

It will take a lot more thought and reflection in terms of studying how millions of people communicate and interact through e-mail before we can really begin to effect positive change.  But that day will surely come.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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