If You Read an Email Message, Read It All: Responding to a Worrisome Trend

Much is said about how the Internet has changed our communication habits, such as shifting communication to email and text messaging versus pen and paper letters through the post. And I enjoy debates over how email might be effecting our writing styles. But I am noticing a worrisome trend, which is admittedly only anecdotal – simply a relatively personal observation – but one that I fear is a plausible development. That is, people are not reading beyond the first few lines and seldom reading your entire message.

Courtesy Arthur A. Berger

It is evidenced by such things as people responding to mail, but only to the first question or first point in a message. For example, you might ask someone two questions, and they only respond to the first. Similarly, if I make a sarcastic point, or make an attempt at joking, it is misunderstood – possibly not read carefully or in the context of the entire email.

I am convinced that people are so inundated with email that they are trying to find all sorts of shortcuts, such as quickly deleting near-spam email that makes its way through filters, and also only rapidly reading what they need in order to delete or respond to an email as quickly as possible. It is like: “Okay. Bill wants to know x” and quickly responding, but not realizing I also wanted to know y.

So it is not only that people don’t write letters anymore. Many people don’t genuinely read their email anymore. One reason social media like blogs, Twitter and Facebook are so valued is that there is no pressure to actually read or respond to anyone’s post. And so most people don’t do either, and can be quite selective. In contrast, comparatively speaking, email still creates a greater sense of obligation to respond, if only to confirm receipt. However, in today’s busy-busy world, we respond as efficiently as possible. In the process, we sometimes fail to genuinely read the full text.

So what can we do? Here is what I am doing more and more.

First, keep trying to write better, clearer, more succinct emails. I try to keep my emails as short as possible. Short and simple but not too short or simple to be ambiguous or misunderstood. Flame wars have been started by short misunderstood emails.

Secondly, telescope your point(s) in the introduction if not the subject of the email. Readers might then look for the announced points, even if they are trying to short-circuit reading the entire missive.

Third, I increasingly avoid making more than one point per email. So I’ll send two emails, each on a separate point, rather than combine multiple asks in one message. Also you might separate them by a day or two. Is this adding to our email glut? Maybe, but you also increase the likelihood of your message being read and meaningful. It also forces you to think harder about whether you need to ask every question that comes to mind.

Finally, when using humor, sarcasm, or telling a joke, you might well be wise to stoop to the point of adding an emoji to guard against the reader taking you too seriously or literally. 🙂

Ironically, if I am right, most of you will not get this far in my blog to read these strategies, particularly those who are overwhelmed. I can only suggest that you need to do your best to keep your readers by keeping the text interesting throughout, and try to avoid getting overwhelmed. Just say “no” and stay within your limits.

A Problematic Plan for Development of the City of Oxford

I am worried that the City of Oxford is poised to approve a long-term plan for the development of the city that will not accomplish its objectives. Reviews of the Oxford Local Plan  have complimented the drafters for how well it is written. Reviewers have been impressed by the vision it portrays which promises to balance the various tradeoffs inevitably faced in land use planning. However, the critics do not call out the serious risks that the plan poses for what is valued in Oxford by current and future residents and visitors.

Think of the fundamental physical realities of its proposals: The city is limited by the ring road and the green belt to a constrained physical space. Already, the city is seriously congested. In that context, the Council proposes to add thousands of additional households. Inevitably, the results will be:

  • Even greater congestion;
  • Reduced restrictions on the height of buildings and households with inevitable diminishment of the Oxford skyline behind taller buildings;
  • The loss of parking spaces, and diminished garden spaces, when parking and gardens are already quite limited, and the loss of sunlight blocked by developments higher and closer to existing structures;
  • A potential loss of families, who will choose to move to areas where they can drive their children to schools and sporting events;
  • Building on a large proportion of the ‘buildable’ green belt (land that is not in flood plains that could not be built upon in any case).

There is likely a tipping point in growing Oxford at which the congestion and over-build will truly undermine its special character, and make it what the Council envisions – a ‘grown up’ city that is no more special than other cities. That might bring a reduction in housing prices but also a growth of the problems facing other grown up cities, such as further deterioration of businesses, tourism and housing in the central city.

Almost everything that we value in the City of Oxford today is at risk for the promise of a vision that appears to me to be overly optimistic, such as moving hotels in neighbourhoods like Summertown in order to shift activity outside the city central core. That has been the dream in so many cities, and has never worked to my knowledge. It will simply add to the capacity of hotels across the city and enable more people to visit Oxford’s core city. Good but not at the cost of undermining the quality of these neighbourhoods.

So why is the Council proposing what seems will inevitably undermine the quality of Oxford?

It could mean ‘£215m of new funding in order to support Oxfordshire’s ambition to plan for and support the delivery of 100,000 homes by 2031.’  That is for all of Oxfordshire from central government, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, for meeting their agreed housing targets. Whatever proportion the City receives would be significantly less, but could be important when the City is stressed for funding.

However, compare this sum to the sums of other developments. Over £400M was invested in the development of Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre. So, one new shopping centre in the city has attracted far more money than the City’s long-term plan will attract from the central government. Surely there will be additional revenues from the development of more housing, new hotels, but at what cost? Moreover, the shopping centre added value to the city, and renovated a deteriorated area, while the plans threaten to diminish the value of our entire city.

So I am worried that the Council is putting the character of Oxford at risk for less than the price of a modern shopping centre. The outcomes of implementing this plan are unknowable. There are likely to be unanticipated and unintended and indirect outcomes as well as any of the intended outcomes that are envisioned. The Council cannot possibly know the consequences of their plans, even if written with the best of intentions, beyond the promise of money from central government.

What should be done? In my opinion, the city should slow down. Don’t strap the City with this Oxford Local Plan that is so problematic. Instead, focus on affordable housing, and move more incrementally. Make decisions based on considering the details of particular cases. Insure that key constituencies are involved, such as the Oxford Preservation Trust, and residents – genuinely listening to the public, including the many schools, colleges, universities, businesses, and residents in the city. Have a rolling, evolving plan that is revisited continually and does not set Oxford on a potentially harmful long-range course at a moment in time filled with uncertainties. There is too much to lose, and too little to gain, for the city to commit to the current, overly optimistic and ambitious plan, however well-written.

That said, I would welcome comments, criticisms, or corrections of any aspects of this plan that I failed to understand.

Respectfully,

Bill Dutton

Resident of Oxford

 

Oxford Local Plan: https://www.oxford.gov.uk/info/20067/planning_policy/743/the_local_plan

Staying Connected to the States

Staying Connected to Media and Information Policy in the States

I may have left the USA and Michigan State University (MSU) to return to my home in the UK, but my days at MSU’s Quello Center have left me with a continuing interest in following developments in media and information policy worldwide, and in the US, in particular. With that in mind, I have been so pleased to have been invited to participate in two networks that are key to my interests:

The Quello Center Advisory Board

I helped build the Advisory Board of the Quello Center while Director from 2014-2018, so I am very pleased to have the opportunity to joining as a member of the Board. The Center has put together a very strong network of individuals from academia, business and industry, and government to keep the James H. Quello Center alerted to the key issues on the horizon. My education on the Board will hopefully be one unintended consequence.

 

2016 Meeting of a Subset of our Quello Advisory Board

The TPRC Board of Directors

TPRC stands for the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference, which puts together an annual conference, more recently entitled ‘Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy’. The conference has been held for over 45 years, and needless to say, it has successfully evolved with the times and the issues around media, information, and communication technology and associated issues of public policy and regulation. The Board is a virtual wish-list of people to stay in touch with about new developments, and I look forward to participating in its meetings both remotely and at their annual conference.

I would not have been invited to join either group had I not directed the Quello Center for four years. So I’m grateful to my colleagues at the Center and MSU for that opportunity, and I’ll do my best to actively stay in touch with initiatives at the Center, where Johannes Bauer is Director, and Laleah Fernandez is Assistant Director, and also follow initiatives across the US communication and technology and policy arena more generally.

My thanks to the members of both organizations for these invitations.

 

Visiting Leeds University and Jay G. Blumler

I had a short but pleasant visit to the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds that provided me an opportunity to catch up with new and old colleagues. The School has made some brilliant new hires, such as Christopher Anderson. Chris is finishing his first year at Leeds with a new and timely book, forthcoming in 2018 through Oxford University Press, entitled Apostles of Certainty: Data Journalism and the Politics of Doubt.

The University of Leeds is also home to one of my oldest and enduring colleagues, mentors and friends in the UK, Professor Jay G. Blumler.  Jay first took a position at Leeds as Granada Television Research Fellow in 1963, going on to direct his Centre for Television Research. He has taught at a number of universities since, but continues his affiliation with Leeds today as an Emeritus Professor.

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Jay and Bill, 2018

On my very first trip to Leeds in the early 1980s, I stayed at Jay’s home, and recall watching Top of the Pops with his family. Lo and Behold, a rerun of that classic was on television decades later, when I walked back into Jay’s home after dinner this past Friday evening. But a more important, enduring feature of my return, was Jay’s continuing pursuit of creating – not just listening to – music, a charming aspect of his entire career. For example, Jay often entertains his academic audiences with brief refrains from a wide range of songs. He has a clear, baritone voice that led to him being involved in, and most often organizing, all sorts of singing groups throughout his life – a topic we discussed that evening.

Even before I was born (if you can imagine that), in 1944, Jay was part of a quartet of American servicemen studying Russian language at Georgetown University. They called themselves ‘The Four Freedoms’, playing off of FDR’s Four Freedoms speech, given in 1941.  A colleague who heard them sing arranged for Jay and his quartet to perform at a recording session for the Folk Song Division at the Library of Congress (photo below).

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In 1946, while still stationed in Berlin, Jay was Chair of the American Veterans Committee, a group he helped found and organize in Berlin. In that role, he was invited to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited the city. She had heard of some of the charity work the committee had done and asked to meet with them. A diary of her day in Berlin mentions her conversations at a ‘soldiers club’ in the last paragraph.

After the service, Jay taught Social and Political Theory at Ruskin College, Oxford, serving several years as Resident Tutor at the Rookery, later called the Ruskin College Academic Building. As the tutor, he formed another group, called ‘Jay and the Rooks’ (photo below).

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Jay and the Rooks

If you ever have the opportunity to visit with Jay, don’t hesitate to ask him if an appropriate tune comes to mind. It will. I am delighted that Jay decided to pursue an academic rather than a singing career, as he has done so much to advance the field of communication, such as in serving as President of the ICA, and advancing studies of political communication in particular. However, I am so happy that he has found ways to spice up his and others’ academic presentations with an occasional song.

Notes

Jay G. Blumler on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Blumler

Pick up the phone!

Ofcom reports that fewer people are using their mobile phones for making phone calls (Williams 2018). The use of smartphones for calls is declining while their use for texting, emailing, searching and using social media is rising. Clearly, this trend is not unique to the UK, nor is it simply limited to the use if smartphones. But I fear this interesting trend masks a more fundamental shift in communication: Put simply, more people are choosing not to speak with others – by phone or in person.

To illustrate, here is a typical conversation I would have with a former office assistant (OA) in my former university. She was a valued member of our team and went off for an exciting move when her husband was offered a better job. But here was a typical scenario:

Me: Has the approval for our research travel come through?

OA: No. I sent an email two days ago. No word yet.

Me: Could you check, and try to nudge them? We need to move ahead.

OA: OK. I’ll send another email.

Me: Maybe it would be easier if you just picked up the phone? Actually, the office is close – maybe you could pop in a speak to the grant officer.

OA: Its easier to email, and she’ll see it.

Me: OK.

I stew for a moment and then walk the few minutes to the grant office, speak with the officer, and get the approval. All the time I am wondering why no one wants to simply pick up the phone or walk down the hall. Perhaps (undoubtedly) it is more efficient for the OA to email, but not for me waiting for approval. Perhaps the OA doesn’t want to disturb or interrupt the grant officer, but my work is effectively stalled. Am I simply being selfish or is my OA simply following a rational path that is not only the easy way but the contemporary way to do things?  Unknown

Of course, this is a simple anecdote, but it happens so often that I cannot help but wonder how pervasive this style of communication is becoming. When I have shared this view with administrators, they acknowledge this as a growing pattern. And it is not just email, but also so-called enterprise platforms for conducting all sorts of financial, administrative, and personnel matters. Ask about health benefits, and I’m told to check or enroll on our enterprise business system. Of course, these systems are designed to permit fewer administrators to handle more personnel. But ironically, it might also lead to inefficiencies and ineffectiveness, such as sending an email rather than picking up a phone or speaking with the right person.

Maybe I am wrong. Video and voice over IP enables applications like Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime that are permitting more interpersonal conversations to occur among people distributed around the world. And since the 1970s, when people expected electronic telecommunications to enable tradeoffs with travel, research has found that telecommunications tends to reinforce travel as we telecommunicate with those we meet with face-to-face before and after meetings. If we email someone, we are more likely to meet them face-to-face, and vice versa.

But I wonder if we have reached some tipping point where this might well be changing – a point when it is getting increasingly difficult to speak with anyone face-to-face or even on the phone.

Reference

Zoe Williams, ‘It’s so funny how we don’t talk any more’, The Guardian, Friday, 3 August 2018: 5.

 

 

Learning from Disasters: 30 Years After the USS Vincennes

Thirty years ago, on 3 July 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down an ascending domestic airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, mistaking it for a military aircraft descending toward the aircraft carrier group. My colleagues and I group this information disaster with a number of others with the hope of learning lessons from such incidents. Time has passed since our 1995 paper and the forum it was based on, but I call your attention to this again as it illustrates the need to study and learn from mistakes. Our analysis of these information disasters is available online is entitled Computer Power and Human Limits: Learning from IT and Telecommunication Disasters, and is available here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3103433 

A revised and published version of this paper is available: Peltu, M., MacKenzie, D., Shapiro, S., and Dutton, W. H. (1996), ‘Computer Power and Human Limits,’ in Dutton. W. H. (ed.), Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 177-195.

Saving Strunk and White

Looking into the College’s hallway recycling bin, as one does, I found a fourth edition paperback of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Arguably, for my generation, as Strunk died the year before I was born, this has been one of the most useful and inspiring books for any young writer or anyone seriously interested in writing.

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Copy Retrieved from Recycling Bin

There is no excuse for recycling this book. If you have multiple copies, as I do, then distribute them to your various workspaces – just seeing the book is a reminder of their suggestions on style. Or give a copy to someone who has not read or does not possess a copy. Give it to a used book store. But please don’t recycle and shread this book as if it were a day-old newspaper. It is a timeless guide to American English writing style, with such reminders to ‘be clear’ and do ‘not inject opinion’ (p. 79).

True, they do not adhere to the Oxford comma, but as the authors suggest, if any rule is inappropriate in a particular case, don’t follow it. But you need to understand standard rules of good English composition before you can wisely choose to violate one. That said, I await my colleagues critiquing this blog for violating one or another of Struck and White’s key elements of style.

This is not just a must read, but a must keep and a must to pass on to younger readers.

Note: The introduction to their book was originally published in The New Yorker, and was copyrighted by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc. The Elements of Style, Revised Edition, was then copyrighted in 1935 by Oliver Strunk.