Have you ever waited on the phone for a customer service representative? Have you waited in a lengthy line to speak with a ticketing agent? Have you raised your hand in class hoping to share a clever thought and ended up being ignored? These are examples of controllable flow. Have you ever read an email and waited for days before responding because you didn’t have enough spare time? Have you felt compelled to respond to a text-message right away, even though you might be preoccupied with an important activity? The root of overload in communication (specifically email) is uncontrollable flow.
In-person communication is generally focused towards one-to-one interaction, or one-to-few. Thus, social cues keep us from being overwhelmed when communicating in person. Digital communication can be a variety of setups, including many-to-one which often makes my inbox a chaotic mess.
You can stand in a room full of strangers eager to have a conversation with you, but unwritten social rules prevent a crowd of people from swarming you with questions all at the same time. This is because there’s a natural flow to social gatherings. You simply can’t have a personal conversation with many people at the same time. Some people will have to wait to get your attention. Or when you’re calling someone on the phone, you can only listen to one person speak at a time. Anyone else that tries to call you will get a busy signal.
The problem with email and SMS messaging is a lack of flow control. An infinite number of people and requests for my attention can flow into my inbox at any given time. There aren’t (yet) any acceptable social cues to control the flow of emails. Email overload is a social problem.
I’m currently thinking of ideas to automatically sort the most common items that flow into your inbox. If you’ve attempted to implement flow-control measures on your email, I’d be interested to hear what did or did not work.