E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

A World Without Email – Year 2, Weeks 34 to 36 (On Meaningfully Managing Streams of Content)

Gran Canaria - Roque Nublo & SurroundingsIt looks like this is going to be one of those weeks where I sense I will be putting together more than one blog post on one of my favorite topics as of late; of course, living "A World Without Email". It has been a while since the last weekly progress report that I have shared over here, I guess it is a good time to talk a bit about what has happened since the last time that I blogged on this topic.

At the same time, I also thought I would post an entry about this subject due to the good number of articles that have emerged over the last couple weeks, and all around the recent release of the first beta from Google Wave, as it looks like plenty of people have been wondering, and questioning, whether Wave would be replacing our good old e-mail systems. Or not. So I thought I would share a few comments on that, too! Although perhaps that will be coming up in follow up articles…

Now, not to worry, I’m not going to overload you folks with a whole bunch of articles on these very same topic. In fact, I’m going to be asking you, towards the end of this blog post, or perhaps in another one, what would you think about a crazy idea that occurred to me just the other day. But let’s go one step at a time…

To get things going, here you have got the weekly progress reports for the last three weeks (Week 34, week 35 and week 36), of which I am just going to embed the one from last week. Week 36:

A World Without Email - Year 2, Week 36

As you would be able to notice, things have gone rather well: week 34, well under the follow-up challenge I set up at the beginning of the year of 20 emails, or less, a week, and then the other two weeks, 35 and 36, with things pretty much steady on that very same count of 25 emails, which is not bad… Not bad at all!

Still looking good, more than anything else, because I have been comparing these numbers, per week, to last year’s, and the total number of emails is a lot less that what I was even getting last year. W00t! Hopefully, it will keep the same way from here till the beginning of 2010 and we will check what the final drop down of incoming emails has been compared to last year’s. Fingers crossed…

For now though, I think it is a good time to move into one of the articles that I would want to comment on, since it has caught plenty of attention when Dana Boyd (a.k.a. zephoria) first published it a few weeks back.

It is titled "Sometimes I Feel Like a Bitch" and you will be able to read it through if you click on this link. Dana makes some really good points as to why email seems to be the best way to reach out to her to communicate, collaborate or to share a piece of information, or knowledge, with her. She comes up with a good number of very valid reasons as to why most of the social software tools available out there don’t work out for her rather well. Quite the opposite!

She talks about information overload emerging from these social tools, a term that I’m sure we are all familiar with, and, perhaps, get to suffer from on a regular basis. However, we seem to may have forgotten the wise words from the always insightful Clay Shirky on this very same topic: it is not about information overload, but "Filter Failure". So, somehow, after reading through Dana’s article, I think that we may not have done good enough in providing relatively good filtering systems. Even better collaborative filtering systems. Somehow, judging from her thoughts, there is still plenty of room for improvement in that area, but, in my opinion, it’s the key towards making sense of all the information and knowledge that we get exposed to through social software on a daily basis, that Web of Flow (That Stowe Boyd has been talking about for a while now). Otherwise, we are going to continue suffering from information overload for a long while still… And not just from social software.

One of the other items that Dana mentioned, which I found rather interesting, was the fact that she feels she can control better the number of interactions by handling those emails versus the ones coming from social software tools. Well, I doubt it. What’s wrong with fragmentation? What’s wrong with handling fragmented interactions? Fragmentation is a healthy thing. It’s how our brain operates. In fact, we, as human beings, are capable of handling fragmented interactions much better to make sense of the information and knowledge that we’re exposed to a regular basis. I mean, if you are looking for pictures, or you want to upload your own, where would you go? Probably, Flickr or Picasa Web Albums. And what can you do in there? Yes, I know, find or share pictures!

The same thing happens with your favorite social bookmarks. If you are looking for a specific link, I’m sure you will be going to Delicious and try to find it there. You may as well have all of your bookmarks (Or a large chunk of them!) shared with everyone in that same Delicious. Yet, that’s the only thing that you would do there for. And these two are just doing some examples from the hundreds of them that are out there on the Web. The Web is fragmented. And that’s a good thing. We just need to get used to it and, as such, start treating it like a fragmented space where we go find the information and knowledge we need to be able to make an educated decision on the task(s) at hand that needs to be completed.

This is certainly a point that I would want to share with you folks and which touches base on some of the stuff that Dana mentions as well. She is stating, more or less, that people treat social software tools like another Inbox (With its private conversations, a la direct messages, for instance); in short, one that is going to replace what we had before. In a way, she’s right! We are still treating these social tools as if we just had another Inbox to work with, i.e. another space we need to go to check what has happened since the last time that I was there. And, since most people have not been taught how to effectively make use of these social tools, they go back to what they know, and what they have learned in the past by themselves, without anybody’s help: their email Inboxes! Just because they may think they know how to handle those interactions better. So, eventually, it all turns out to be just another mailbox, when in reality it could be something completely different… Alas it is not!

Which brings me to my next, final, point; one I would like to quote from her own blog post, as perhaps being the main overall problem: "[…] But I don’t know how to meaningfully manage streams of content". That is just spot on!! It is not about information overload; it is not about the fragmented Web; it is not about treating social software tools as just another Inbox,. It is just about the fact that we probably don’t know how to manage streams of content that just matter to us and the social networks we are part of. And since we don’t know, we just tend to go back to what we know, i.e. what we have been handling, relatively well, for the last few decades: email. Again!

So, perhaps, that’s our challenge for social software to make it into the enterprise world. To train and educate, through whatever the learning activities we can come up with, our knowledge workers about the shift that we all need to go through by moving away from a single focal point of interactions into multiple streams of relevant, and collaboratively filtered, content just for me. Perhaps, when we do that, we would start thinking that is not so difficult, after all, to make sense of something that has been intrinsic all along to all of us from the very beginning of time: our very own social interactions.

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  1. The idea of “I don’t know how to meaningfully manage streams of content” is something that each of us have worked through, but haven’t necessarily made explicit. With e-mail, some people read newest first, some read oldest first, some read urgent first.

    On social media, I’ve now come to the conclusion that I like to categorize my family, friends and colleagues, and read them according to their personal priority to me. Thus, I have collaborations on a feed to my reader every 15 minutes, my family gets checked every 2 hours, and colleagues get checked every 4 hours. (If someone needs to contact me immediately, they generally send me chat on instant messaging).

    I do find that the low priority list naturally gets longer. Sometimes, I look down there for variety, and sometimes the items go unread. Now and then, I’ll go through and clean out the basement … but I have to be in the mood to do that.

  2. As this article says, we don’t have solid best practices for managing the multiple channels. I think that will take a while to come especially given the shifts going on now in those channels and that what we really need are overarching methods to deal with change as well as the current multiplicity of channels. And it will take time for socio-ergonomics to mix with techno-ergonomics successfully.

    But what caught my attention especially is this comment in the blog, “Fragmentation is a healthy thing. It’s how our brain operates.” Well, yes and no. Our brains do categorize, this we know, but we also know (at least as of a few years ago, “Mind Brain Behavior” sciences do continue to make discoveries) the brain categorizes in some part to cut down the number of variables to deal with, as the brain can deal with n+/-2 items at a time (I’ve heard n as 7, as high as 9, as low as 5, but whatever it is, it’s a fairly low number). So as fragmentation stretches beyond the numbers and typologies we can handle in our heads at once (as assisted by tools, to be fair), then it is counter-productive.

    Further, the brain’s categorization and limits may or may not be “naturally” correlated with the fragmentation of sources, I think that’s a strong leap in the article and would want to see proof. I personally find the fragmentation effect to much, and, no, I don’t go to flickr and picasso for pictures except as people have sent links or as it comes up from a search engine. I have certain places I’m accustomed to and others I visit infrequently and others I’ve given up on or don’t have time to explore.

    I believe the answer lies in the ability to understand the semantics of these fragmented sites and to sensibly aggregate, search, and recommend. Otherwise, at least for me, but I posit for too many others to simply be a trivial audience, this fragmentation is not something embraceable in today’s way of working and is for now a flaw, not a desirable feature.

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