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