With everyone focused on handwringing issues surrounding social media, such as ‘disinformation’, and the rising tide of regulatory initiatives, most have forgotten about one of the earliest forms of Internet communication – email, and the real problems this medium is facing. I am not referring to spam email, one of the early crises facing Internet users, which has been generally mitigated by increasingly effective spam filters. I am trying to understand a more basic issue of – let me call it – bad emails. Bad emails are those that no one reads, or no one continues to read beyond the first few lines.
I am reading a collection of letters by the prolific German-America author Charles Bukowski, entitled On Writing, edited by Abel Debritto (New York: Harper Collins, 2015). I did not agree with many of the lessons conveyed by Bukowski’s letters. For example, he did not make carbon copies, and generally did not keep copies of what he wrote, often sending his original work to editors without even tracking to whom he sent what. I save my handwritten notes, and everything I do online is copied and copied.
However, I very much enjoyed his criticism of much writing, from poetry to the news, as too often stale and formulaic – unoriginal. His letters are distinctively his, and he cares deeply about what he reads. As he puts it: ‘A man’s soul or lack of it will be evident with what he can carve upon a white sheet of paper’ (p. 25).
As I carried on with examples of his writing, and his thoughts on writing, my mind went straight to the tragic condition of most email that most people receive. Most of us have long since stopped writing ‘letters’. But they have not exactly been replaced by email without a great loss in quality and diversity.
Possibly due to the numbers of email we receive, one quickly categorizes each to determine its quick disposition – delete, scan, read, save, or even print to guard, read later, and more. Hundreds of emails can be efficiently disposed of in minutes. But the more serious problem, and why it is so easy to process email, is that most is so stale and formulaic. An appeal for donations. An invitation to a seminar. A notice of a meeting. … The variations are most often trivial, such as a colourful drawing or logo, but the same basic script.
Bukowski’s letters were personal and always told a story, whether about what he was doing, or how he was feeling, or what rejection he received, etc. I will never have his talent, or write or draw such interesting letters, but he inspired me to think more carefully about every letter – email – that I write. Why should anyone read beyond the first point, if that far, unless the message is personal and tells a story? Reading your given name in the salutation is not enough in the days of computer-assisted mail merges.
So the crisis of email is that it has become artificial, prepackaged, and unimaginative. How much more fun to try and make every email a story you would enjoy telling the recipient letter (Internet) ‘user’. The question becomes: Will I do this? Can I?
At the very least, I will make sure I keep his letters in sight as a reminder of my ambition. May I recommend that others spend time reading the letters of someone whom they regard as a great letter writer, if only to remind themselves of the potential of the letter as a story, and address the bad email crisis?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Zoe Williams, ‘It’s so funny how we don’t talk any more’, The Guardian, Friday, 3 August 2018: 5.
Fake News is a Wonderful Headline but Not a Reason to Panic
I feel guilty for not jumping on the ‘fake news’ bandwagon. It is one of the new new things in the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election. And because purposively misleading news stories, like the Pope endorsing Donald Trump, engage so many people, and have such an intuitive appeal, I should be riding this bandwagon. It could be good for my own research area around Internet studies. But I can’t. We have been here before, and it may be useful to look back for some useful lessons learned from previous moral panics over the quality of information online.
Fake news typically uses catchy headlines to lure readers into a story that is made up to fit the interests of a particular actor or interest. Nearly all journalism tries to do the same, particularly as journalism is moving further towards embracing the advocacy of particular points of view, versus trying to present the facts of an event, such as a decision or accident. In the case of fake news, facts are often manufactured to fit the argument, so fact checking is often an aspect of identifying fake news. And if you can make up the facts, it is likely to be more interesting than the reality. This is one reason for the popularity of some fake news stories.
It should be clear that this phenomenon is not limited to the Internet. For example, the 1991 movie JFK captured far more of an audience than the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President Kennedy. Grassy Knoll conspiracy theories were given more credibility by Oliver Stone than were the facts of the case, and needless to say, his movie was far more entertaining.
Problems with Responding
There are problems with attacking the problem of fake news.
First, except in the more egregious cases, it is often difficult to definitively know the facts of the case, not to mention what is ‘news’. Many fake news stories are focused on one or another conspiracy theory, and therefore hard to disprove. Take the flurry of misleading and contradictory information around the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, or over who was responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July of 2014 over a rebel controlled area of eastern Ukraine. In such cases in which there is a war on information, it is extremely difficult to immediately sort out the facts of the case. In the heat of election campaigns, it is also difficult. Imagine governments or Internet companies making these decisions in any liberal democratic nation.
Secondly, and more importantly, efforts to mitigate fake news inevitably move toward a regulatory model that would or could involve censorship. Pushing Internet companies, Internet service providers, and social media platforms, like Facebook, to become newspapers and edit and censor stories online would undermine all news, and the evolving democratic processes of news production and consumption, such as which are thriving online with the rise of new sources of reporting, from hyper-local news to global efforts to mine collective intelligence. The critics of fake news normally say they are not proposing censorship, but they rather consistently suggest that the Internet companies should act more like newspapers or broadcasters in authenticating and screening the news. Neither regulatory model is appropriate for the Internet, Web and social media.
Lessons from the Internet and Web’s Short History
But let’s look back. Not only is this not a new problem, it was a far greater problem in the past. (I’m not sure if I have any facts to back this up, but hear me out.)
Anyone who used the Internet and Web (invented in 1991) in the 1990s will recall that it was widely perceived as largely a huge pile of garbage. The challenge for a user was to find a useful artifact in this pile of trash. This was around the time when the World Wide Web was called the World Wide Wait, given the time it took to download a Web page. Given the challenges of finding good information in this huge garbage heap, users circulated urls (web addresses) of web pages that were worth reading.
A few key researchers developed what were called recommender sites, such as what Paul Resnick called Platforms for Internet Content Searches (PICS), which labeled sites to describe their content, such as ‘educational’ or ‘obscene’. PICS could be used to censor or filter content, but the promoters of PICS saw them primarily as a way to positively recommend rather than negatively censor content, such as that labeled ‘educational’ or ‘news’. Positive recommendations of what to read versus censorship of what a central provider determined not fit to be read.
Of course, organized lists of valuable web sites evolved into some of the earliest search engines, and very rapidly, some brilliant search engines were invented that we use effortlessly now to find whatever we want to know online, such as news about an election.
The rise of fake news moves many to think we need to censor or filter more content to keep people from being misinformed. Search engines try to do this by recommending the best sites related to what a person is searching for, such as by analysis of the search terms in relation to the words and images on a page of content.
Unfortunately, as search engines developed, so did efforts to game search engines, such as techniques for optimizing a site’s visibility on the Web. Without going into detail, there has been a continuing cat and mouse game between search engines and content providers in trying to outwit each other. Some early techniques to optimize a site, such as embedding popular search terms in the background of a site that are invisible to the reader but visible to a search engine, worked for a short time. But new techniques for gaming the search engines are likely to be matched by refinements in algorithms that penalize sites that try to game the system. Overtime, these refinements of search have reduced the prominence of fake and manufactured news sites, for example, in the results of search engines.
New Social Media News Feeds
But what can we do about fake news being circulated on social media, mainly social media platforms such as Facebook, but also email. The problems are largely focused here since social media news provision is relatively less public, and newer, and not as fully developed as more mature search engines. And email is even less public. These interpersonal social networks might pose the most difficult problems, and where fake news is likely to be less visible to the wider public, tech companies, and governments – we hope and expect. Assuming the search engines used by social media for the provision of news get better, some problems will be solved. Social media platforms are working on it. But the provision of information by users to other users is a complex problem for any oversight or regulation beyond self-regulation.
Professor Phil Howard’s brilliant research on computational propaganda at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) develops some novel perspectives on the role of social media in spreading fake news stories faster and farther. His analysis of the problem seems right on target. The more we know about political bots and computational propaganda, the better prepared we are to identify it.
My concern is that many of the purported remedies to fake news are worse than the problem. They will lead straight to more centralized censorship, or to regulation of social media as if they were broadcast media, newspapers, or other traditional media. The traditional media each have different regulatory models, but none of them are well suited to the Internet. You cannot regulate social media as if they were broadcasters, think of the time spent by broadcast regulators considering one complaint by viewers. You cannot hold social media liable for stories, as if they were an edited newspaper. This would have a chilling effect on speech. And so on. Until we have a regulatory model purpose built for the Internet and social media, we need to look elsewhere to protect its democratic features.
In the case of email and social media, the equivalent of recommender sites are ways in which users might be supported in choosing with whom to communicate. Whom do you friend on Facebook? Whom do you follow on Twitter? Whose email do you accept, open, read, or believe? There are already some sites that detect problematic information. These could help individuals decide whether to trust particular sites or individuals. For example, I regularly receive email from people I know on the right, left and everywhere in between, and from the US and globally. As an academic, I enjoy seeing some, immediately delete others, and so forth. I find the opinions of others entertaining, informative and healthy, even though I accept very few as real hard news. I seldom if ever check or verify their posts, as I know some to be political rhetoric or propaganda and some to be well sourced. This is normally obvious on their face.
But I am trained as an academic and by nature, skeptical. So while it might sound like a limp squid, one of the only useful approaches that does not threaten the democratic value of social media and email, is the need to educate users about the need to critically assess information they are sent through email and by their friends and followers on social media. Choose your friends wisely, and that means not on the basis of agreement, but on the basis of trust. And do not have a blind faith in anything you read in a newspaper or online. Soon we will be just as amused by people saying they found a fake news story online as we have been by cartoons of someone finding a misspelled word on the Web.
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.
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.
I’ve written about the lost art of writing with a pen. Now I feel like there is a need to explain in plain English that when you are having difficulties communicating via email or other electronic messaging systems that you can use the telephone, what you may know as your mobile.
Seriously, people never use their landline phones. And people increasingly do not use their mobile phone as a phone. Years ago, I had a speaker from Seattle, Washington, giving a talk in Oxford, and she told everyone to leave their phones on. Her argument was that no one would actually call during her talk, because people are using their phones for texting and for accessing the Internet and social media – not for talking to other people. And no one called.
This trend raises its head in a number of ways. For example, I keep receiving emails from colleagues, particularly administrators, who raise issues I want to discuss with them. Well, as you might guess, they do not list their phone numbers on their email, not to mention their office location. They cannot imagine that someone would want to call them, or visit their office to speak face-to-face, or they do not want to encourage such behavior. I managed to get the phone number of an administrator that practices this art of hiding from the phone and found that he not only fails to answer his phone, but also has no message on his answering service – so I do not even know if I have called the right person or phone.
Email is great. Don’t misunderstand me. I started emailing in 1974, and then we had to call a person to tell them we just sent them an email. I guess now we have to email someone to say we plan to call them. But when email fails, such as in trying to choose a restaurant or organize a meeting, think about actually talking to your colleague. It is easier and will save multiple emails.
So here is my advice, whether or not it has been solicited:
First, put your phone details on your email and blog or Web site. Be accessible.
Second, leave a message for those who call you when you are unavailable.
Third, when communication is not working, just pick up the phone.
In conclusion, it is important to remember that no media is always superior. You need to choose the right medium for the occasion. That will need to be the topic for another blog.