I have just read “Addressing Information Overload in Corporate Email: The Economics of User Attention”, a white paper by The Radicati Group. Their motivation makes a lot of sense: we receive a lot of email these days, and there is not way to quickly tell the wheat from the chaff in your inbox. The “urgent” or “low priority” flags are often overused or not used at all, so they means little. And even for those who use them consistently, they only give you three levels of importance.
Once you remove all the marketing babble, what these guys propose a continuous scale to grade the importance of an email. The sender states how important an email is in a scale from 0 (zero) to potentially infinite, and the sender sees it when she received the email. It’s easy to sort your inbox on the importance column and prioritise emails with higher importance values.
I know, I know. There is the issue that email importance is modelled as a currency. Every time you compose a new email and state how important it is (using an importance unit called Serios), your “balance” is reduced accordingly. For example, if I send an email valued in 20 Serios, my Serios balance is reduced by 20. Since my balance is finite, I must think twice before allocating very high importance values to an email.
All this is good. However, I think that these guys are missing a point. If the motivation of the whole thing is how busy we are, don’t you think that adding more decisions to our day will make us even busier?
Yes. Imagine having to decide, for every single email that you compose, how many Serios it is worth. You need to take into account your balance, assess the attention history of each of the recipients, and assign a Serios value according to the amount of attention that you want to receive for this particular email. Many people I know, if presented with such a system, would end up agreeing (tacitly, maybe) on using a fixed Serios rate of, say, 20 for every email, and thus avoiding the need of making that decision. That, of course, would destroy the idea of Seriosity, the company behind all this.
Are we really willing to invest some time now to, maybe, get attention from others and, potentially, save some time later?