The New Status Symbol: A Secret Email Address

I have been so wrapped up in communicating with my colleagues and those who contact me, that I have missed the rise of a new status symbol. I recently took on a task that led me to contact a range of academics, with excellent track records in their respective fields. Some are simply known to be strong academics, others approach virtual ‘rock stars’ in the academy. I was struck by how often I found it quite difficult to find the email addresses of many, particularly the stars.

Clearly, all the academics had ample information online about their record of publications, their career and various academic positions and activities. They also have links to their Twitter, blog and Websites clearly identified. But email addresses are surprisingly often hidden, if not totally absent.

Some sites have a form to complete for staff to decide whether and how to forward a message to the academic they support. Some have an email tucked deep in text explaining how busy they are and that they cannot be bothered to respond to solicitations, requests for endorsements, and so forth. Some just don’t give you a clue about how to reach them by email.

What is going on here? One possibility is simply a rational response to the impossible task of keeping up with email. Many of us could spend their entire day simply responding to email. So if you want to pursue your own priorities, rather than only responding to others’ priorities, maybe making it more difficult to send you an email is a very pragmatic response. They could move to the Midwest, for example, but it might be easier to hide your email address. th-1

Another possible fix is to delegate email responses. At one time when I could ask an assistant to filter and respond to some email, I found myself taking more time going over decisions with my assistant than it would take me to work directly with my mail. I’m not sure there are good short cuts.

When I am busy on a deadline or travelling, I can get so far behind on email that many go without responses, and are eventually buried in the inbox. So maybe it would be better to not have an open email address than letting people believe you simply choose not to respond. Either way you irritate people you’d like to help.

Many of us are hooked on email because opportunities come your way, such as potential collaborations, prospective students, news, or job openings. You can argue that if a person really needs to reach you, they will find a way. It is not uncommon for example for people to ask me how to reach a colleague – a communication role I try to avoid. Nevertheless, it takes some confidence and courage to knowingly cut your self off from many emails.

But I don’t think you can reject the possibility that this has also become a sign of one’s status. It is a trend that is growing and among top people in your field. They are among the best at managing their time, and they are very busy following their own agenda. So they have less to lose, and more to gain, but protecting more of their time. So it might be a sign of one’s status, but also a rational response to the threat of email undermining one’s priorities. But for now, I’ll keep my email address public.

One thought on “The New Status Symbol: A Secret Email Address

  1. Just a short addition to your excellent article: What I found is that many leading academics can be reached quite easily via Twitter (provided they maintain an active account). Perhaps due to the brevity of exchanges on Twitter many academics whom I failed to contact by e-mail were willing to enter into a conversation which at some point would continue with e-mails, depending on the nature of the exchange.

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