The scarce currency of e-mail

First, I want to acknowledge my source – First Monday . A a much loved and respected internet newsletter, FM is also a unique online peer-reviewed journal. Since its first edition (exactly 12 years ago), First Monday has published 860 papers, written by over 1000 authors. First Monday chief editor, Edward J. Valauskas, is a teacher, a curator of rare books, he is also founder and principal, with Nancy John, of Internet Mechanics (check their seriously terse site here), a technology consulting group (est. 1993) that offers advice to schools, libraries, government agencies, and corporations on telecommunications, computing, and the Internet.

Other notable contributors to First Monday include Esther Dyson, the great internet doyenne, Open source initiator Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, and Metadata fundi Robin Henshaw who studies various aspects of online research and reference experience.

If you want to receive First Monday’s superb newsletter, you can register as reader and be notified by
e-mail on publication of an issue of the journal, as an author, enabling you to submit items to the journal, or as a reviewer, in case you are willing to conduct peer reviews of submissions to the journal.First Monday’s latest issue has a fascinating paper written by Byron Reeves, Simon Roy, Brian Gorman and Teresa Morley. It is entitled “A marketplace for attention: Responses to a synthetic currency used to signal information importance in e-mail.”

The paper deals with the serious problem of information overload and profusion of verbiage, spam and reflects on the growing danger of lumping non-specific information together with crucial, mission critical data. “The problem of information overload exists for all enterprise communication channels.” They argue, adding that “[i]nstant messages, system alerts, phone calls, visits from co-workers and even self-interruptions occur so frequently that workers rarely have more than five minutes of focused work before an interruption occurs.”

The writers suggest that e-mail users implement a “scarce synthetic currency that senders can use to signal the importance of information and receivers can use to prioritize messages… Users receive a limited (‘scarce’) allowance of 100 units of currency (known in this solution as “Serios”) per week. Receivers can view the amount of currency attached to messages in a special column in the e-mail in-box.” Senders assign a “monetary value’ to the e-mail they write, and than attach the monetary symbol of their e-mail, allowing recipients to sort (or even filter) their e-mail according to the value assigned to it by the sender. The fact that a limited amount of currency is assigned to senders each week, forces them to ‘price’ their missives carefully.

The paper shows that ‘low cost’ e-mail made up the largest number of e-mail messages sent and, conversely, people spent more time on ‘cheap’ missives than on ‘expensive’ ones. The authors argue that “The primary result of the study is that synthetic currency attached to e-mail can change communication behaviour for senders and receivers of e-mail messages. This behavior change translated into an improved ability for receivers to prioritize incoming traffic, and for senders to get faster responses to important messages.”

The writers saw potential for the currency system in other information-exchange systems, as well as possible usage of currency systems to entice, encourage and reward idea-generation, team planning and process management. The research should be expanded in order to examine “social networks using value exchanges rather than frequency of contact. Such research “offers visibility into organizational communication that is not available with other social network data.”

Rating systems are not a new idea, one finds them, for example, in hotelsmovies, restaurants and clothes. What makes the e-mail currency principle different is that the ‘value’ or ‘economy’ of the exchange is defined by users, senders and recipients and not by external rules and criteria. – as it is done now.

As I was writing this piece, I found an interesting applicaiton that aims to turn one’s e-mail correspondence (Outlook only, at this Open Beta stage) into a measurable and analysable social tool. Check this fascinating app called Xobni (the word Inbox spelled backwards, prounounced Zob-nee.) My favourite feature is the way Xobni analyses my social netwrok by checking the quantity and frequency of e-mail I send to and receive from people. Apparently, Bil Gates got all warm and fuzzy about Xobni, terming it “the next generation of social networking.” Gates may want to buy Xobni and, if he does, chances are that Outlook 2010, or whatever, will have Xobni as a feature – but why wait that long?

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