Email’s broke . . . and it ain’t worth fixing

Promoting the cult of the individual. . . . for social benefit.

Have Facebook and other social networking sites turned us into collaborative group workers? I don’t think so but it feels like it.

My analysis of Facebook and online systems in general is that the most successful ones reinforce our ability to operate as individuals and that the social, networky bits only happen because of an essentially selfish drive. This is why they work. They are built on the most basic human instinct of all – self preservation. Let me explain!

In the old days of bulletin boards and forums, individuals were expected to ‘join’ groups. Joining a group has implications for the individual. The individual in these circumstances has to surrender a certain amount of control and their identity is affected by the group they join. This is the main reason many people do not subscribe to a particular religion or belong to a political party.

In the new world of social networks, individualism is fine and works really well. People are motivated to get involved because it is about them as individuals. They don’t have to join groups and surrender identity or control, unless they want to.

In this new world individuals are just free to do their own thing, write and think their own stuff. The difference is that they do this in a (technical) environment that enables them, as individuals with similar interests, to identify each other. Whether they take things any further and form a group is up to them and under their control.

So what does this mean for networking organisations like ruralnet|uk and RNUK Ltd? Well, first of all we ditch the concept of a forum as an online place where people, with a shared interest, come together to interact online. Portals go out of the window for similar reasons. At the same time we encourage people to be themselves in their own online space. In short, we give them a blog and tell them to start writing* and we give them a place to save their bookmarks and we show them how to tag the things they write and the resources they find (inc bookmarks).

Then what emerges are ‘virtual forums’. In this new scenario, a forum on ICT consists of everything any individual has written and tagged ‘ICT’. Clicking on the ‘ICT Forum’ doesn’t take you into an online space but will list all these ICT tagged items in reverse order and enable people to comment.

These blogs, that individuals are given, need to have the facility to pull in other material that other individuals are writing or thinking into these individual spaces. But this ‘aggregation’ needs to be controlled by the individual. What I am describing here is starting to look like a ‘professional’ version of Facebook.

What are the practical implications of this approach and why would this approach make a difference? Well, consider the efforts of ruralnet|uk to reduce our carbon footprint. Part of our strategy is to have a ‘carbon champion’ and part of his job is to keep a diary (a blog) of the issues we are facing and actions we are taking. However, he is not the only person facing issues and with things to contribute. In theory we could give the ID/PW of the blog to everyone in the organisation and they could contribute. Or, we just have to be content to comment. But the truth is that we’ve all forgotten the url of the blog and it has become invisible to us.

In the brave new world, everyone in the organisation has a blog and if they write something that’s related to our carbon footprint they just tag it ‘ecocred’ (or something). Then, clicking on the ‘ecocred’ tag displays what our ecocred blog should be; a consolidation of all the views, knowledge and experience of the whole organisation on this subject.

At ruralnet|uk we want these individual spaces to be people’s work benches the place where they develop and manage their projects. This is our stretegy and we are working quickly towards it. For us email is nearly dead.

* But when are people going to have time to do all this writing? I hear you say. My answer is that they are doing it already but in the wrong places . . . in one-to-one emails, in inaccessible Word documents etc

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7 Responses to Email’s broke . . . and it ain’t worth fixing

  1. Damian Harries says:

    Interesting thought from Simon…
    Is email really dead? Did it really become obsolete? Perhaps it become overburdened, mis-used and abused? Unmanageable for most and clogged with unnecessary ‘noise’ from people we never heard of and entitled with subjects to beat the anti-spam rather than inform us… Oh, the pleasure of receiving a hand written letter from a friend!
    Anyway, if the death of email is actually due to poor discipline by users… how would a change of technology bring back the disciplines needed to sustain it? Not to mention the challenge of ‘limited span of attention.’ We get bored so quickly! We bounce from one new idea to the next… from friends reunited to bedo to myspace to facebook to…? The internet is beginning to look like my garage – a store of once loved toys that are no longer loved by the those who once craved them! (Just a thought…)
    Meanwhile, one-to-one dialogue is clearly still important, if we believe the stats on mobile phone texting, but our messages are rapidly becoming reduced to ‘sound bites’ with short-cut language…so much to say but only 120 characters to say it in! So, we don’t talk anymore we ‘chat’… but we don’t chat, we “text”…and we develop ‘online relationships’ where we meet up in ‘virtual worlds’ where we can live the life we wish we had, and stroke our ego, and patch up our self-esteem… We used to “go out” with our mates for a beer and a natter; ‘ave a bit of a laugh together… and, alongthe way, we’d develop social skills, and communication skills, and confidence and go home at the end of the day knowing there’s someone there for me at a level online friends can’t offer…
    What a strange world we’re creating.
    It’s about inclusion – people’s need to belong and feel part of something but in the 21st century it’s all about me and my individuality and being in control… but, to be part of a community I have to let go of my rights and think more collectively…
    Well, a few random thoughts… stimulated by a thought about emails! Might look like an “anti-internet’ rant… but you can’t tell ‘cos you can’t see if I smile or grimace and you can’t hear my tone – all you get is the words.
    It seems to me that a bit more socialising and a little less social networking might actually start to change the world… I’m sure there’s a parallel in our workplace?

  2. Simon Berry says:

    Thanks for the pointers David and thoughts Damian.
    Email isn’t really dead – of course – but it is now used for things that it shouldn’t be used for (I think). There is lots of knowledge and insights locked up and made inaccessible by putting them in an email.
    Sharing them in one place which is accessible by all those who are interested has got to be a better way of doing some things.
    On chopping and changing and going with fads. I agree – you have to be very careful. We stuck with our last platform for 9 years and during that period many other systems came along and were expected to ‘blow us out of the water’. We looked at these, we assessed them against where we thought we were and where we were going and it’s only recently that we felt it was time to move.
    On the individual vs group theme . . . at the end of the day I, as an individual, am interested in loads of stuff and my level of interest (or the time I am able to apply to a particular interest) waxes and wanes. I am not sufficiently engaged on one issue long enough to warrant me joining a particular ‘group’. So it suits me to be able to contribute on and off from something like this blog.

  3. Paul says:

    What makes is possible to find this blog entry and engage is the technology – Although I did get your email about it, I picked it up from your Facebook note appearing in my page.
    If you just ‘build it’ they won’t come I’m afraid because ‘they’ are either not engaging at all (still a serious problem with people stuck in their own silos) or they are doing it already in existing networks (whether these existing networks actually do work or whether they are just another set of closed off silos is another matter). The long term investment is not in the technology, it is in the time to use and animate these networks, reading, commenting, becoming more Kanter-esque – changing the way you work is the first stage, moving onto a more ‘Web 2.0’ platform enables you to do this, but it is not the answer.

  4. Simon Berry says:

    I agree with this totally and want us at ruralnet|uk to spend less time in our email boxes and more time at our workbenches on the Internet.
    The closest any organisation I have seen get to this is Demos. Go here: see and click on people and you find some people are blogging eg:

  5. Paul says:

    Further to my point about how people work – this means retraining to be doing this stuff outside the inbox – Beth Kanter has a very good overview from someone Amy Gahran here
    Finally Karl Wilding from NCVO has a challenge

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