Is an Email Address a Social Contract?

Seriously. If you know my email address, am I bound by some social custom to answer every email you send me? Within some particular time frame? Am I required to even read every email you send me?

A scenario:

  1. I have an email address.
  2. You send me an email
  3. I have, you know, a life. I don’t read your email for a couple days.
  4. You get annoyed at me for not answering, so you send another email: “Did you get my email?”
  5. I, still possessing a life, family and a job, still don’t read your email.
  6. You get downright pissed, and send me a screed as to my personal failings.
  7. Email checking finally bubbles to the top of my todo-list, and I read your first email. Possibly even respond to it.
  8. By the time I read your last email, I am baffled as to how my personal scheduling became offensive to you.

Been there? Me too.

In order to understand how we got here, let’s take a quick trip through recent personal communication. I’ll skip the old caveman days when we grunted at each other…

Long ago (forty years?), people wrote letters to each other. Regularly. On paper, written by hand. Writing a letter by hand takes some work; I encourage anyone to try it. Writing a three-or-four page letter to someone, in pen, to update them on your life, takes effort, time, quiet, and forethought. This is not a 140-character event. When you receive a real letter, well, you do feel an obligation to reply. At least in this case you know the person who sent the letter invested some time in it. It feels polite to reply.

The Phone.
Next up for personal communication was the land-line phone. Now you could call someone directly; dial a rotary dial, push some buttons and bang; for all intents and purposes an alarm went off in their house. Of course people felt compelled to answer; those old phones made noise! Plus, calling wasn’t a trivial thing to initiate, socially. You knew you were going to set off a loud noise in someone else’s house. This was a disruptive — almost innately rude — event. So people called only if they needed to. Which meant that if your phone rang it was probably important. So you answered it. It might be important!

Caller ID, answering machines, and simple familiarity started the slide away from this habit. Once we could see who was calling and be assured of not missing a call, well, then it became much easier to ignore the phone. Call during dinner? Forget it. Political call? Pass. And so on. In thirty years we went from phone calls being rare and important to needing a national Do Not Call registry. Progress, of a kind.

Sure, most people still answer the phone. Especially the older-than-thirty generation. But the trend was clear: you can ignore a phone call with little downside.

(As an aside, have you ever sat and ignored a phone call in front of some baby-boomers, or your grandparents? Drives them crazy. It especially seems to drive them crazy because it slowly dawns on them — do you ignore their calls too?)

Cell Phones
I’ll skip pagers, and move right into cell phones, particularly personal cell phones that you carry in your pocket or purse. Cell phones are wondrous and all, but they changed the nature of person-to-person communication pretty massively. First of all, it was the rare person who didn’t carry their cell with them; that meant they were always “home” to hear the ring. With tons of people carrying a cell all the time, the barriers to calling slowly dropped. Calling someone became as natural as turning to the person next to you and talking. Headsets, Bluetooth, voice-dialing, flate-rate long distance, mobile-to-mobile minutes; it all conspired to make it trivial to call and chat. For a lot of people, calling on the phone replaced listening to the radio when commuting. An incoming call on your cell no longer carried the weight of being even a little important, because we all became used to calling people just to chat.

But this ever-lowering barrier to calling people had a side-effect: it lowered the barrier to ignoring calls as well. Mix in a healthy dose of Caller ID for call screening, and people began ignoring calls, letting them go voice mail, figuring on returning the call later. And since you are always carrying your cell, sometimes it is just inappropriate to answer; kids acting up, in a quiet restaurant, in the, er, facilities. You understand. Society and custom conspired in several way to make us more likely to ignore your call. Maybe we could text you back later!

Texting was a real sea-change; texting was email to a phone. So let’s talk about email…

The Fickle Mistress, Email
Ah, email. We love our email. There was Compuserve, AOL, POP3, IMAP, Hotmail, GMail, Yahoo! Mail, Blackberry email, email on your iPhone, email from Nigeria, email about Viagra, and on and on. Email really changed the world; all of a sudden you could broadcast information to someone and they didn’t have to even lift a finger to get it! Magic. Soon, our inboxes were overflowing. Spam filters were born, and achieving “inbox-zero” became an Olympic sport for some.

Much has been written elsewhere about the broader social and societal impact of email, but I’m interested in one particular facet of email. Email added a new twist to personal communication: you sent me an email that is important to you, and you know it arrived at my inbox in seconds, but did I read it? You only know I read your email if I respond to it.

This creates a problem if you are a person who gets even a modicum of email. I get a fifty to seventy-five or so personal emails a day (those that make it passed GMail’s spam filters). I get several hundred work emails a day, mainly because our test servers generate email summaries constantly. Add in some email relating to the blog. Altogether it combines into a wave of email that I refuse to let dominate my life. This means I don’t always answer emails when I get them. Sometimes, with frequent emailers, I let several missives pile up and then answer them all with one email. So people who email me sometimes wonder if I read it. Which is, I’d say, their problem. Except that if the delay offends them, it becomes my problem.

(I’ll point out that a work email address most assuredly implies a social contract regarding answering your email. They pay you, you answer your email. In some cases, they hand you a Blackberry and expect you to answer it quickly. Fine, that’s the job.)

Email and texting are broadcast medium; fire-and-forget. Sure, with email you can ask for a read-receipt but nearly everyone will ignore it. Texting’s 140-character limit turns a broadcast service into a conversation service. The service itself isn’t suited to thoughtful exchanges of information, so people use it for short real-time exchanges or tiny informational updates.

Email, however, is well-suited to long form conversation. Quoting and threaded email make it easy to have long and involved discussions with people, spread out over time if necessary. Did you ever spend time on one of those mailing lists where they dissect a TV show or book series? Then you know what I mean.

Because I gave you my email address, did I make a promise to respond to your emails in a timely manner? Is an email address a social contract of some kind?

I think it is not, but loads of people think it is. And their idea of timely is their idea, rarely mine. So I offend people without even meaning too which annoys me. Now you can tell me I should just get to my email faster, but I have a life, a wife, kids, a job, etc. Time is my most precious commodity. I really do just prioritize other things ahead of my personal email.

Plus, I am pretty sure I am not alone in this. Because after email came…

Facebook and Twitter
Facebook and Twitter are (accidentally or not) designed to get around this problem by taking communication and making it asymmetrical. In Facebook you choose friends and post to your “wall”, which they can all then see — very efficient. Twitter is even looser. You follow some folks, but this relationship implies nothing about whether they follow you. Facebook’s “Friending” can be emotional for people (or at least “un-Friending” can be), but it is the rare tweeter that pays much attention to the comings and goings of followers.

I’d say the asymmetric nature of Facebook and Twitter communication is a big part of these services’ attraction. By removing a need for reciprocating, they let you talk without expecting a reply — with is both freeing and efficient. Sure, some people end up talking to themselves, but that is the nature of the beast.

But that returns me to my original question: is an email address some sort of promise?

I know mine isn’t. What about yours?

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12 Comments on “Is an Email Address a Social Contract?”

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