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

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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 Tungle.me 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 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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