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Email externalities

It costs nothing to send an email beyond the cost of composing it – the latter is low when a message is simply a copy of something received or simply something forwarded to everyone on a group email list.  However receiving hundreds of emails each day on topics that have no relevance to those receiving them does have a social cost of requiring a filtration of the messages received.

People who send emails, without accounting for the costs of doing so on their recipients, generate unpaid-for externalities.

Imaginative schemes for regulating emails have been proposed such as charging individuals for sending a mail or issuing email quotas. Business executives and some academics have even sworn off using email altogether as a way of punishing sender abusers.  This is a pity since email is a useful means of communication and it pains to disrupt a useful medium of communication because of the antics of a few idiots.

A better approach to thinking about the email overload issue lies in the skillful use of ‘moral suasion’ and in some cases retaliation.

  • Everyone should be careful about sending emails, particularly using group email lists or using ‘reply to all’ options.  Almost no-one is interested in “I agree with Jack” messages or sending a congratulatory message to everyone you think might know the person you wish to congratulate. 
  • Suggest in any email you send the exact character of your message in the subject line so that it can be deleted if it is irrelevant.  Come to the point immediately!
  • Use the telephone occasionally.
  • (Getting serious). Deny serial abusers of their email facility by automatically redirecting their emails to the ‘junk mail’ box. 
  • (Getting serious). Send retaliatory junk messages to those who bother you.

I have no interest at all in over 90% of the emails sent internally at my university so I glance at the first line of most and delete if either (i) it doesn’t interest me or (ii) if I can’t immediately wwork out its content.  This has occasionally got me into trouble as many senders take 10 lines or more to come to the point.  But if I don’t do this they are imposing large external costs on me.

If you are not prepared to do this then try to discipline your email reading times to be, at most, once or twice a day.  There are economies of scale in disposing of unwanted emails and then in reading the few which are in fact important.

Petty bureaucrats in university administrations are among the worst offenders in contributing to the email deluge. They typically include the Dean or some other more senior bureaucrat in their group postings.   They seem to be sayinjg “look at me – I am doing my job”.  You are not – apart from the disruptions that your mere existence creates – your stupid emails choke a useful means of communication among academics.

3 comments to Email externalities

  • conrad

    When I worked at the University of Hong Kong, you could actually subscribe in or subscribe out of most types of university email by just clicking a button, so if you didn’t want to know about the achievements of the latest petty bureaucrat, you didn’t have to. This was the best system I’ve seen.

    There’s also a huge difference between universities — where I work out now, we used to get piles of crap (we still do), but a year or two ago they stopped letting many people, like for example the university gym which the majority people don’t go to, spam everyone, which cut the crap down somewhat. You should mention this as a strategy to your VC rather than just complain, as you might be doing everyone a favor. I’ve come to the point where I just use two emails — my university one for daily crap, and a non-university one for other stuff.

  • Uncle Milton

    Putting a communication in an email ensures backside covering when the question gets asked “but why didn’t you tell me?”.

    The answer: “I did, it was in the email”.

    Even better, if you know your organisational rival doesn’t read his emails, you then send him important information in an email.

  • An excellent post, Harry. I delete 3/4 of the mails I get now.

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