The Real Paul Jones

Accept no substitutes

#noemail in light of Google+

Two different former students from two different decades asked recently, “When you started #noemail, did you know that Google was going to release Plus? And how did you know what Plus would do?” Somewhere embedded in the questions is: “Did Google give you some kind of head’s up about Plus?”

My guess was that someone would do something serious to work on messaging and radically reduce the centricity of email. I knew that Facebook and Google both had projects aiming at changing the way social and messaging work. Of course, there were and are several other players working in the same areas. When I started thinking about #noemail seriously last summer just before hearing of Sheryl Sandberg’s talk at the Nielsen conference, I had already seen the software infrastructure in place or ready to be put into place with projects mentioned in this blog in the early parts of the #noemail category and in interviews with and HTML5 + JSON were just too powerful and too promising to anyone interested in integrating activity streams and changing messaging.

Then as you noticed in my classes especially the one in Fall 2009, I’ve been very interested in an emerging literacy powered by vernacular video. Google+ out Skyped Skype on that — leaving out the shared screen and telephone Skype-out parts, but doing a better job of group chats and video sharing.

All this said, Google+ is only in limited field trial and will be changing as the Googlers see how we use it, how we work around the constraints, and how we define the communities and communications uses.

I expect to see something like visible Circles or cooperatively managed Circles or something to help groups communicate better — perhaps an integration of Reader+Groups with a Plus and Circles spin to it. Services to Groups (of the Facebook type rather than the Google Groups type) missing now and was done as a hack early on in Friendster, then in MySpace, then in Facebook, before each added the feature belatedly. Integration and/or a refinement of Google Groups would be one way to get there pretty quickly.

The most pressing question for me is: can we run a class in the fall using Google+ instead of other services? Groups of some sort would help on that a lot.

What Google+ has done for or to me after 5 weeks of #noemail is to answer a lot of the questions that I was trying to raise. I already am enjoying the aspects of Plus enough that I’m not upset about the learning curve and the advent of a new service.

No, I’m not returning to email as a result of Plus. Just to opposite. I may never use email again.


  1. RogerTheGeek

    7/10/2011 at 3:15 pm

    Are you going to fix this form to use the G+ or Twitter userids rather than email address? 😉 Seems odd being there.

    I too would like to explore noemail ideas, especially for teams and groups on projects. We are all swimming in email and there doesn’t seem to be many people in the corporate arena who are seeing that people spend 40-50% of their time foisting messages back and forth. When I suggest changing this, I get laughed at as crazy. We spend a fortune on saving every email and cc’ing everyone on the project who then saves their copy somewhere.

    I am following your experiences closely to see how it can be effective for our teams.

  2. Paul

    7/10/2011 at 4:14 pm has added that feature (FB, Goog and other logins). I need to take a break and look at how.

    On corporate noemail, look at what @elsua has been doing at IBM for about four years now.

    All the studies are showing email is the second worse time sink and interruption generator. Phones still the first. It’s not so hard to make the case that email is a black hole. A little harder to sell social media to those in the 50 – 65 demographic, like a lot of managers and bosses and like me ;->

  3. Shane (yes I was a student)

    7/10/2011 at 8:34 pm

    Still not getting #noemail. What a strange thing to get political about… “Studies” showing that email is a time sink? Cite? Why is email a black hole? What were you doing with this tool? It is one channel. Period.

  4. Paul

    7/10/2011 at 8:56 pm

    For one of many studies see What’s the biggest time sink – email or social media?”

    I encourage you to read the #noemail postings here to see many more citations before demanding more. All of your questions are answer herein and in interviews referenced also here in #noemail.

    And what is the political angle? Are you sure you are using that word the way you intend to use it?

    Peace out,

  5. Shane (yes I was a student)

    7/10/2011 at 9:29 pm

    Ah, I think I’m cluing in: seems like some chronic misunderstanding of email, as well as some ignorance as regards the many, many, management tools for controlling it. It seems like the problem has something to so with thinking that not calling an electronic message “email” means that — especially in a forum — it is something different?

    Sigh. I’m really not trying to be an arse about this, Paul, but it seems like a weird and (dare I say it) somewhat old-school attitude about being able to jettison a technology for the sake of sounding hip and cutting-edge. Still seems silly. Please prove me wrong.

  6. Shane (yes I was a student)

    7/10/2011 at 9:32 pm

    (I am really, really, truly not trying to be an arse about this. I’ll try to re-approach from a fresh angle. I appreciate your efforts, energies, and scholarship on these issues!)

  7. Shane (yes I was a student)

    7/10/2011 at 9:42 pm

    So, just for clarity: Is the problem that email is a “time sink?”

  8. Paul

    7/10/2011 at 9:52 pm

    One problem, as I describe below on this blog and in the interviews, is the time sink problem. But that is only one problem. Another is that email — since I began working with it over 30 years ago — has become more and more of a Rube Goldberg contraption. It’s a miracle that it works at all. As Michael Tiemann and I discuss, humans end up, in practice, becoming sorting machines for email. That’s another problem. And I describe many more.

    I believe that there are better ways of communicating and that those ways will including activity stream management in integration (as briefly mentioned in the post above. I believe that the variety of interactions can be separate and integrated as best suits one’s communications needs.

    All written word is not a letter. A telegram is received and read differently than a post card even if they have the same content. The distance between how email and other communications media are perceived and received and reformed is vast. The horse can carry you to the store, the iron horse and the horseless carriage can do the same — but what differences!

  9. Just catching up with your thoughts (so, my bad for being too quick with the trigger, before). The thing is, though, that I have worked in the professional world for decades, and as a librarian at two Universities, and email is a tool that is not going away. I think that the the asynchronous nature of the medium and the inherent search- and sort-ability go a long way towards self-justification. Personally, I think that the “stream” metaphor doesn’t really do anyone any favors. As you know better than most (or me ;), there are as many different venues and circumstances for electronic documents as there are users. I’m just saying that email has a place. An iron horse is great on tracks or roadway, but the ol’ hoofed one is better on trails. And, sometimes, a bike is better than either. As you say, all written word is not a letter.

    As a sys admin, for example, I received 100K+ notification emails a day that were all nicely sorted and filtered for me through a system of rules and filters. Perhaps it is just a matter of comfort or preference, but I was not a contraption that spent hours filtering computer-spawned data. To the contrary, I have long been able to sort and organize a huge number of documents and missives in a manner that chat or forums or Waves of Plus just couldn’t handle.

  10. Paul

    7/11/2011 at 10:36 am

    You are unusual in your use of filters for notifications etc. I’ll dig out the reports from the PIM (aka Personal Information Management) studies, but I recall only a very small percentage of people make much use of those tools unless they are fairly automatic — see Gmail’s Priority Mail as an example of a fairly automatic sorter or almost any spam filter.

    I’m not requiring or even asking you as an individual to give up email. I’m only doing so myself. And I’m predicting that email as you knew it only a few years ago will be drastically changed and decentered from its current place in our communications environments.

    See for example, startups using services like GetSatisfaction instead of traditional email based trouble reporting systems for one change that has real promise.

    Horses, mainframes, and very tall hats all have their times of glory. No more. I see the same for email as you now know it. It’s already at the edge of the dustbin of history; soon it will be like photo magazines and radio theatre — seen as a curiosity or in revivals.

  11. Paul, I agree with you that email is problematical, even as email has many great social aspects through adhoc social groups, even as it lacks adhoc semantic groups.

    As a distributed alternative to stuff like Facebook and Google+, my wife (Cynthia Kurtz) and I have been working towards better FOSS social networking technology using narrative (story exchange) for small purposed-driven groups called Rakontu:
    “Rakontu is free and open source software that small groups of people can use together to share and work with their stories. It’s for people in neighborhoods, families, interest groups, support groups, work groups: any group of people with stories to share. Rakontu members build shared “story museums” that they can draw upon to achieve common goals. Rakontu is about small groups sharing stories for a reason. Rakontu communities are private spaces where people share personal experiences about something they all care about and in the process build something they can all use. Usually people in a Rakontu community will have something they want to do together, some common goal, and they will be interested in collecting and working with their stories as a means of getting there.”

    A first version for Google App Engine is out, but we’re working on a newer more peer-to-peer system using CouchDB and Java that builds on what we learned from that, such as documented here by my wife:

    I also have a broader vision of building on the same platform for public intelligence called Twirlip, that might add structured arguments and a variety of other tools that the intelligence community has published about using for sensemaking and analysis. I’d also like to create tools way beyond email that move towards a social semantic network (and I have a related Sourceforge project called the Pointrel system).

    As an example in that direction, I wrote a demo in JavaScript with CouchDB that supports small groups building concept maps; feel free to try it with multiple simultaneous users coordinated by IRC chat or in the same room (creating an account is easy):

    See also, for inspiration about building a semantic desktop to move beyond email:
    “The Internet, electronic mail, and the Web have revolutionized the way we communicate and collaborate — their mass adoption is one of the major technological success stories of the 20th century. We all are now much more connected, and in turn face new resulting problems: information overload caused by insufficient support for information organization and collaboration. For example, sending a single file to a mailing list multiplies the cognitive processing effort of filtering and organizing this file times the number of recipients — leading to more and more of peoples’ time going into information filtering and information management activities. There is a need for smarter and more fine-grained computer support for personal and networked information that has to blend the boundaries between personal and group data, while simultaneously safeguarding privacy and establishing and deploying trust among collaborators.”

    Related to that sort of work, my wife and I are both listed in the Who’s Who of public intelligence:

    Anyway, we’re trying to figure out how to raise funds to move that Rakontu project and further work forward, or at least be able to do it on the side while doing compatible work for others. We’ve already poured all our spare personal resources into FOSS software and related writing for many years, so we’re at the end of what we can do on our own right now. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to make them. Or if you need a sidekick/flunky also named Paul to create confusion on the net, and help ibibilio move into being part of a semantic desktop (maybe building on Osprey), I’m available. 🙂

  12. (Let me preface this by again reiterating that I am not trolling you, nor do I mean disrespect.)

    I did chuckle a bit when I read the post describing how to contact you: “Giving up email beginning June 1, 2011. You will be able to reach me on Facebook and on most socialnetworking sites as smalljones including Twitter, Gtalk, AIM, Skype, Quora, Hunch, LinkedIn, DropBox, YouTube, XtraNormal and here on this blog.

    And this is somehow a sea change from just keeping an email account open? You think that managing this stuff is being less of a Chaplin-esque Modern Timeser? I really feel like there is a fundamental error in thinking that “email” is different from a post on a blog or Facebook.

    “Email as I now know it” is a means of transferring professional documents and (occasional) personal communications. It is well-suited to my professional life and is the standard at the University where I work. It might be a curiosity for future generations, but it is fallacious to connect those dots as though there is a logical link between some presumed future and current utility.

    And, of course, “email” is different than the “electronic mail” that our distant, television-worshipping, ancestors knew. There is nothing earth-shaking in stating that email will be yet more different in 12 months, two years, or five years.

    Sigh. I am absolutely willing to concede that this is just some sort of weird sticking point for me and I’m not entirely rational on the subject.

    Keep on keepin’ on.

    PS – I do like GetSatisfaction – The nature of these beasts is that there will be continual change and growth. At least, so one hopes.

  13. Paul

    7/11/2011 at 1:23 pm

    As I say in the various interviews, that list of options is subject to change, deletions and additions at any time. Rather than say: I’ll only contact you via xxx, I say “Let’s see what the people who are contacting me like to use when email is no longer an option. Here’re some ways. Suggest others as you like.” I joked that I’d accept even a YouTube video, but now with HangOut on G+ a couple of folks have already left videos or chatted live as an alternative to emailing.

    Managing an array of communications options is easier than setting up email filters; I have an instance of Chrome. I have a tab for each option. I usually keep that instance minimized and only check it every few hours.

    Document sharing by email is already dead. Google Docs, MindTouch, various wikis, and even MSFT’s Sharepoint changed that game several years back. Attachments? Past, Passe, Kaput!

    I admire your passion, but I think it’s misplaced. If you choose to be obsessed with something, have you considered something healthier and of greater social value say Doctor Who trivia?

  14. Now don’t get me started on Doctor Who… 😉

    By the way, attachments are very much alive and in use. Probably still standard. It’s cute that you’d think otherwise, but the reality is not in step with the idea of real-time shared documents. /Maybe/ in certain circles, attachments to email are dying out, but that’s not the case in labs, businesses, and universities. You mention SharePoint, for example, which is simply an enterprise collaborative tool which, wait for it, hosts wikis and document spaces with an xml front end. I’ve leveraged several instances of SharePoint, and Google Docs, and neither are email alternatives, but different geranimals. In the business world, documents quite often need to be sent in a “published” mode, and collaboration — even edit-locked — isn’t the preferred model. Yet.

    I also don’t get why using tabs in your browser represents an alternative to email? Still means human oversight and lots of clicking (not that I do anything different).

    I will stop, I promise. Just seems that #noemail is a weird line to draw in the cybersand. That is the sum total of my (weak and pointless) argument.

    Now about that Amy Pond…

  15. Dear Dr Paul; The problem is endemic. Where I work, work is quite often measured in how many e-Mails we process. I tend to ignore them all. The people who really have an issue to resolve call me and we promptly resolve the issues. For starters a lot of the questions are superfluous, repetitious or trivial. then we waste endless hours arguing about it, meetings. So, I do my work and when ready give the results regardless of a possible escalations. Many years ago I attended a course where the good fellow showed that the more we ‘communicate’ the longer the project took, plain math. So, e-Mails as solution in my mind are only an expression of a misconceived management idea. A comparison; Some time ago it was written: Though shall not steal. Today we have turned a simple 4 word sentence in to tons of verbiage that steal our time. Brain farts. And then there is, Genghis Khan, ran a rather large enterprise rather well, with out cell phones or e-Mails.
    Yes, sir. e-Mails are the professional source of revenue for the companies that have the mechanisms to support them.

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