The New Yorker on Email: It’s Funny Because It’s True


The New Yorker, that stuffy bastion of print, still managed to hit today’s technology shifts exactly on the head once again, with its Shouts and Murmurs humor column on email. The column manages to capture both the overwhelming influx of email (both worthwhile and pointless items) and the distracted state most of us are in today, as we try to sift through too many information streams. It also illustrates how email is the bridge enabling asynchronous communication over geographic distances — and how it’s a bridge we need to burn once we get all the way across to the real future of collaboration, which will have text, video, documents and real-time context about people’s projects and work combined with ways to search and filter that information.

Go on, take a second to read the New Yorker piece. For those who want the short version, here’s an excerpt (it doesn’t do it justice):

Please note that if your e-mail is more than three (3) sentences in length I have read the first three (3) sentences, skimmed the opening paragraph, and sort of eyeballed the rest of it. Please do not expect a response to your e-mail anytime soon, if at all, for I am not a mind reader, and therefore cannot guess the nature of anything beyond the first three (3) sentences. For those of you who continue to insist on sending e-mails longer than three (3) sentences, here is a Wikipedia entry on haiku. Reformat your e-mails accordingly, as in this example …

All jokes aside, the issue with email is people think it’s something it’s not. Email is a form of communication, but it’s often mistaken for collaboration. When it is, that “collaboration” can result in tens or hundreds of emails flying back and forth with little collaboration and perhaps too much communication in a case of telling, not doing.

Thankfully, the tools are evolving so we can truly collaborate as our broadband networks improve and companies get wise to the future of work. (By the way, for some deep thinking on this topic, come to our Net:Work Event Dec. 9 in San Francisco.) We no longer need to wait for mail of any kind when we can Skype while sharing documents in real time. We no longer need to send a million emails trying to schedule a meeting when applications like make it easy. Instant messaging can deal with immediate notifications and requests from spouses to pick up milk at the grocery store. For asynchronous communications, there are Facebook-style tools for businesses. For the few remaining tasks when email is the best option, then tools like Priority Inbox from Google (s goog) or OtherInbox can make finding the crucial messages easier.

Tight now, I’m laughing at the New Yorker column, but I also hope that — like its famous “on the Internet no one knows you’re a dog” cartoon — this snapshot of tech culture fades in relevance because it’s no longer true. On the Internet, we now know if you’re a dog (most of the time, anyway), and soon, email overload will be a thing of the past, as we implement smarter inboxes and better collaboration technologies for work. After all, kids today already use social networking and texting to keep in touch as opposed to email. Why shouldn’t we follow suit?

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How many more times do they have to “hit today’s technology shifts exactly on the head” before you stop calling them a “stuffy bastion of print”?

They publish DVDs, several podcasts, a web site, and have an iPod app. None of those are print. They’ve been covering technology for the 15 years i’ve been reading the magazine.

Have you read the magazine, or just assumed it’s “stuffy” because it’s been around for decades longer than blogging?

Stacey Higginbotham

Roger, that was tongue in cheek, but clearly not very obvious. I’ve read the New Yorker since I was 12 (the cartoons since I was 8 or 9) and can’t imagine life without a subscription. The hope of a New Yorker iPad app is why I purchased the iPad for my husband. But Eustace Tilly is a bit stuffy, hence my comment.

Rich Dale

I recently came across the Gmail/firefox plugin ‘Boomerang’. It simply lets you send or ‘re-receive’ emails later. It’s amazing and extremely helpful email organisation. It’s currently in closed beta, but I got my invite pretty quick.

Stacey Higginbotham

That sounds like a cool tool. Maybe I should set up an email hour and then send myself emails I need to address during that time. I already star my emails and use multiple inboxes to try to manage my emails, but it’s not exactly working.


Thanks, this is a really great topic Stacey. I am helping lead next-gen IT and communications at the small company I work for, and the advantages of these new technologies are becoming increasingly apparent. However, one key problem in transitioning from email, beyond people “just being used to it”, is the lack of understanding in how the newer technologies capture data in a “secure” way. It’s hard for many to understand that they can still go back and find information based on any date, name, etc, just as the would with email. The more enhanced features of data findability are great too, but until people fully grasp that the basic email organizational structure is still covered, they don’t buy in to the next-gen features.

Stacey Higginbotham

I agree. That’s where the intelligence and perhaps UI tweaks need to come into play. I agree that the status stream a la Facebook isn’t ideal for presenting information needed for work and that it’s hard to feel secure that you are seeing what you need to see and can find it later.


Stacey wrote: “the real future of collaboration, which will have text, video, documents and real-time context about people’s projects and work combined with ways to search and filter that information.”

Sounds like Google Wave to me. Google was too hasty in killing Wave.


One word: context
But that requires a different way of thinking.
Also doing it within a category based programming paradigm(OO) is hard.

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