February 19, 2006

Our Email System is Thrashing

I am getting increasingly worried about the volume of emails that circulate amongst academics.

I'm not talking about the "Oh this is so funny you must see this!" emails, nor the "Do not open any email entitled Virus Warning" virus warnings (hoax or otherwise). I'm not talking about spam emails (we have filters that work, pretty much). I'm not talking about the "important message from the vice-Chancellor's office: the VC has a dental appointment on Friday morning and will not be available then", nor am I talking about the emails where the sender should have replied to an individual rather than the whole list. I am not talking about multiple forwards of the same email, nor am I talking about being randomly cc:ed into someone else's conversation.

I'm not talking about messages that shouldn't have been sent in the first place. I'm talking about legitimate messages concerning academic affairs. There's just so damn many of them.

There's too much to deal with. We can't cope. Too many messages arrive per day, and as we can't deal with them all as they come in, we end up putting messages aside to come back to later. The percentage of messages that are getting lost in people's inboxes is rising. Academics are resorting to extreme measures to deal with email. One colleague came back from a conference to find 600+ messages in his inbox, and promptly deleted the entire inbox, saying "If it's important, they'll email me back". Some colleagues resort to hibernation, with auto-reply messages conveying that they won't be able to respond to email for a while. Others adopt the strategy of never replying to email, requiring you to repeatedly try phoning them in the hope of contacting them.

This is all increasing the amount of communication we have to deal with. My colleague who deleted his entire inbox not only meant that people had to contact him again, but they also had to realise that their message didn't get through in the first place (no he didn't tell them). Messages buried or delayed in inboxes just means we have to try harder to contact everyone. Because we have so much email, we're having to resort to extra means to try and deal with that email.

Computing academics have a term for this kind of behaviour: thrashing. From the Free On-Line Dictionary of Computing (FOLDOC):

thrashing ==>

To move wildly or violently, without accomplishing anything useful. Paging or swapping systems that are overloaded waste most of their time moving data into and out of core (rather than performing useful computation) and are therefore said to thrash.

This perfectly describes what's going on. We're wasting more and more time trying to move our communications into other people's core focus, rather than doing something useful. The scary thing is, that on a computer, when thrashing occurs, the performance of the system plummets. I can see this happening to email too. The trouble is we can't just go and get a higher-performance brain.


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