Things that leak out of my head

I waited until almost the last minute to decide, but I’ll be there.  Come join me!

Email is broken?

People hate email.  Hate, hate, hate it.  But we still use it.  Let’s talk about why we hate it and why we continue to use it.

From discussions I have with coworkers and from posts like this, it seems that the four primary complaints about email are spam, noise, attachments, and shear volume.  As far as I can see, these problems are not inherent to email but are unavoidable side effects of any successful communication medium.

Spam.  There’s spam in every channel of communication: Printed junk mail, door-to-door salesmen, robo-calls, etc.  There’s no getting around it entirely.  However, email spam is an extremely manageable problem with the right technology.  I use Gmail.  I got a spam email a couple of weeks ago.  I deleted it.  Problem solved.

And you think there’s no spam on Google+ or Skype or ShinyNewThing2.0?  If people switch their communication habits to another technology that makes email spam less profitable, spammers will switch to that new medium.  Eventually spammers will be able to spoof video calls to you from known contacts.  The computer generated image will look and sound exactly like grandma.  But she’ll be trying to sell you Viagra.  I’m not joking; think about it.

Noise.  Humans are chatty.  We like to say ‘thank you’ even when it’s not necessary.  We like to add snark.  We say or type things that make absolute sense to us but are terribly confusing to others.  It takes us several interactions to come to consensus and conclusion.  This is part of being human, and this exists in every form of communication.

I suspect that any technology that removes the ability to add noise will not be used.  Consider knowledge bases: they have extremely high signal-to-noise ratio, but few people use them.  Humans seem to need noise to really get the signal.

Attachments.  I hear complaints about email attachments.  I hate them too.  Every time some one sends me an email with a roll of cat pictures attached I want to scream at them “Learn to use the web!”  Certainly it’s worth considering whether email should allow attachments at all.  But it’s not email’s fault that people send attachments when they should be using things like Google Docs, Flickr, Dropbox, etc.

Volume.  I’ve never heard anyone complain they don’t get enough email.  Yes, the volume of email makes it hard to digest and hard to make use of the information that’s there.  Yes, technology could make this easier.  But consider the volume on Twitter, Skype, Facebook, and now Google+.  Is that any better?  Imagine all the useful information that’s in your email but posted on Twitter.  Does that make you shudder?  It should.

So with all these problems why do we use email?  It seems that the five primary drivers of email use are ease of use, universally connected, identity, privacy, and time-shifting.

Ease.  Email is easy to use.  It’s very easy to convey a lot of useful information to a lot of people quickly using email.  And it’s analogous to familiar forms of communication.  So even grandma can use email.  (The fact that she can’t use it well is a topic for a later post).

Universal.  Everyone has an email address and if they don’t, they can get one for free.  And anyone with an email address can send to anyone else with an email address.  Gmail talks to Yahoo talks to Exchange talks to every other email service.  It’s a standard called SMTP.  This is the single biggest advantage over competing communication technologies.

Identity.  By default, email has become our virtual street address.  Everything from my banks to my dentist use it to know who I am.  In my workplace we often use people’s email addresses instead of their names.  There may be 4 men named John on an email thread.  Instead of saying “John will do this” it’s more efficient and clear to say “jwohn will do this.”

Privacy.  Privacy is like an onion, of course.  But there’s a perception that if I email some one, that’s a private communication not open to anyone else.

Time-shifting.  Everyone can’t always be available at my whim.  People need time to do their work: heads-down, no interruptions, focused work.  People get sick, take vacations, and even live on the other side of the planet.  These things should not prevent me from communicating with them.  Not all communication needs to be synchronous, real-time.  In fact, there are huge advantages to asynchronous time-shifted communication.

So this sets the stage.  We see there are problems with email, and we see there are advantages.  My next post, “Email is dead to me” will go into the alternatives people have proposed.  Spoiler alert: I can’t see any of them, or any combination of them, as viable email alternatives.

Email is not broken

I don’t like email any more than anybody else.  But I would like for us to explore the issue of email, what’s wrong with it, and what to do about it.

People hate email.  People have hated email for years.  By 1998 our culture had had enough of email that we were writing songs about it: “I Hate Email” by the Geektones.  Recently, the launch of Google+ has reinvigorated our collective frustrations with email and re-ignited hope that something will save us from it.  For example, see this post: Google+ will replace email, period.  (I’m not picking on that author; that’s just one of many similar articles.)

This is a big topic, better suited to a doctoral thesis than a Tumblr post.  So I have assembled my thoughts into a number of short articles which I’ll post here.  Over the next couple of weeks the topics will be:

Part 1: Email is broken?
Part 2: “Email is dead to me!”
Part 3: Murder most foul
Part 4: Email is Dead; Long Live Email!

The future of your social graph

Katango is an iPhone app that examines the way you interact with friends on Facebook and automagically builds Facebook lists of your friends.

Apparently only 5% of Facebook users create lists, as it’s no fun sifting through all your “friends” and figuring out how to categorize them (family, friends, real friends, enemies, work friends, by project, by city, by interests, …).

Supposedly the value in this is that if you have lists set up in Facebook you can target your communication.  You can share the latest picture of your cat with the people who care about your cat but not your clients.  Or something.

I really don’t know because I don’t use Facebook and I don’t have an iPhone.

But, they key point is that algorithms can (and should and will) determine what we share with whom, at least to some degree.

The Google+ Circles UI is nice and fun.  But why should you have to do this at all?  Why shouldn’t Google suggest who should be in what circles based on how you interact with them?

There are at least two answers to that question.

First, practically speaking, having just launched, Google+ doesn’t have enough data on your interactions to even try to categorize people for you.  But after several months of usage, Google+ should have plenty of data to build very accurate lists.  (Of course if Google freely used all all they know about you from searches and Gmail and everything else, they could easily build accurate lists today.)

Second of course there’s the issue that it would freak people out.  I don’t think the average Internet user is ready to see how much an algorithm can figure out about who you are, what you do, and who you know.  If Google tried to do this today people would cry about privacy and ownership of data and so on.

But give it 2-3 years.  Some piece of software (Facebook, Google, or ShinyNewThing2.0) will tell you who your friends are.  And you’ll be thankful it does.

Why I’m staying on Twitter

Jeff Bullas has an insightful post called 7 Reasons Why Google+ Drives Hyperactive Engagement.

But I take real issue with one of his points:

4. [Google+] is not limited to 140 Characters like Twitter and so encourages people to interact more naturally rather than think long and hard about how to make it fit to the 140 character limit.

So what he’s really saying is that Google+ lets people blather on without thinking about what they’re saying.  Will some one please explain to me why that’s a good thing?

The beauty of Twitter is that the 140 character limit forces people to THINK about what they’re posting.

I want to interact with you.  I want to engage with you.  I want you to be my “friend,” I want you to read my content, and I want you to comment on it.  But most of all I want you to think about it.  Make your point, and we’ll discuss it.

Feedback please!
Shift by Peter Arnell, chapters 8 to the bitter end

Recently I’ve taken interest in the concept of personal branding.  I’ve started doing some reading and research on the topic, starting with the book Shift by Peter Arnell.  Here is the first part of my review of this book.

I did not like the rest of this book.  In chapters 1 through 7 I found a few ideas that felt somewhat useful to me.  But from the rest of the book I got nothing.

The problem is that Peter Arnell is an ad man.  He thinks in terms of short, emotional, dramatic headlines intended to get you to buy Pepsi or panty hose or a microwave.  He may be a truly brilliant man, but in this book he demonstrates zero ability to get any deeper than a sharp-looking logo.

This book calls itself a “how to” book.  But it’s nothing of the kind.  There’s no direction, no process, nothing concrete beyond such silliness as “Go helium.”

If you’re a salesman or an ad man, you’ll eat this up.  But for anyone else this book is just empty calories.

That Music Service Which Must Not Be Named

Oh for crying out loud.  I got totally slammed with Twitter spam after a couple of tweets in which I mentioned this hip new music service.

That service is now dead to me.  I uninstalled the app.  I did not delete my account, for the sole reason that I want to lay claim to the ID johnwohn in as many services as I can.

I did not like this service for many reasons even beyond the spam issue:

  • It requires a downloaded installed client app.  Seriously, what century are they from? I really don’t like one-trick-pony apps littering my machine, thank you.
  • The free version interrupted my album with some unrelated awful song that totally destroyed my experience.  It was an ad, trying to get me to try some other music.  It played the whole wretched song!  This is much, much, much more intrusive than the commercials on Pandora.
  • No (or extremely limited) mobile access.

Yes, the paid versions relieve some of these problems.  But my experience with the free version was enough to completely turn me off the whole product.

Call me a dinosaur.  I prefer to buy my own CDs (whole complete works of art unto themselves), rip them, and drag-and-drop them to my mobile device.  It works best for me.

Email, Email, Everywhere and not a thing of meaning

I get so annoyed when I hear people say email is broken.  My email is not broken.  It works fine.  It’s not my problem if you can’t handle your inbox.

I have been trying to write up my thoughts on this topic in a blog post, but I have so much to say about the topic it doesn’t fit well into a single post on Tumblr.  I’m trying to figure out a way to break it up into useful chunks.

But, this article has some interesting thoughts.  Specifically I’d like to highlight a very important quote by my hero Merlin Mann:

“The real problem of e-mail is people, and people are not a solvable problem.”

Shift by Peter Arnell, chapters 1-7

Recently I’ve taken interest in the concept of personal branding.  Finding the most fashionable type of jeans to wear does not interest me, but finding ways to communicate who I am does interest me.  A lot.  I want to figure out how to convey to people who I am and what I do and what I can do for them, because if I can convey that, I’m confident I will be more successful and happier.

So I went to my local library and sifted through the catalog until I found some relevant books.  Right now I’m reading Shift by Peter Arnell.  I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m going to post some notes, and when I finish it I’ll post a concluding review.

Chapter 2: Why Not?

When faced with something hard or impossible, ask “Why not?”  This can lead you to finding ways to make it happen.  Paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw: “Some people look at things as they are and ask why.  I imagine things that never were and ask why not.”

Chapter 3: Branding in an organizing principle

Originally people branded their cattle to keep them organized, to keep them from getting mixed up with others’ cattle.  My personal brand is a way to organize my assets, influence, accomplishments, abilities, and value organized.  My personal brand establishes my ownership of my assets, influence, accomplishments, abilities, and value.  My personal brand allows others to identify me and to identify with me.

Chapter 4: Purpose of branding

The purpose of personal branding is to make everyone aware of me, to help them understand and recognize my purpose, my intent, and my value.

Chpater 5: Encapsulate me in an external image

To re-brand myself, take everything that I am and encapsulate it (sum it up, back it up) into an image which I establish and maintain with the outside world.  What do I want to communicate to the people around me?  How can I convey that message consistently and effectively?

Chapter 7: Collect and adapt

You can’t get rid of the past.  Collect and curate your present experience so that it can become a source of wisdom, intuition, and innovation.  “Fish where the fish are.”  Be dynamic, adapt, change direction to seek opportunity.  Engage the present where the opportunities are right now.  Don’t hold on to the past or what you thought the present would be.  Don’t hold on to your preconceptions so much that they limit how you can take advantage of how the world really is today.

And the rest …

Here are the rest of my thoughts on this book.