All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.

- "Batty", Blade Runner

It’s time to start another project - Sci-GaIA, the follow-on to the successful FP7 project ei4Africa. As I wrote recently, I think that this project presents a fantastic opportunity to re-think our workspace. This are some personal thoughts about something which started off as the killer app for the internet, then ate it all : email.

Email. Must. Die.

Ok - rant mode on !

le rant !

I’m of course not advocating for us to stop communicating with each other, neither that email itself is bad per se. My feeling, like many1, many2, many3, many4, people have suggested, is that relying solely on email kills productivity and silos information5. By communicating over email, we are essentially hiding information from ourselves, our colleagues and the rest of the people out there who could potentiall be our collaborators. Email is the lowest common denominator and will always be there for us, like that one really old, but great t-shirt we just can’t seem to part with. Let’s not ditch the mailing list and private mails, but be aware of the fact that email is great at hiding information which we actually want to share.

Ok, wiseguy, what’s your suggestion ?

How can we make this web thing work better for us ? We have an infinity of tools available for us to use, the problem is getting them all to talk to each other in one place. This is why Slack was born :sunrise:6. I’ve waxed lyrical before - actually on several occasions - about how good slack is at putting everything we do into context, and making it easier to stay on top of life. I’m looking forward to using it in Sci-GaIA too.

For example…

We have one of the first internal deadlines of the project coming up (31/05 as per Roberto’s last mail) First of all I’ve taken the liberty of putting the text into a post in Sci-GaIA’s slack instance - only the team can see it. It’s searchable and “citable” via url (if we want to publish that particular post), unlike emails.

Also, there’s a google calendar integration to slack, which will announce new deadlines and events, as well as send reminders to the team (with Zapier). The calendar is a shared (but private) calendar which the consortium can add to. If you don’t like a shared google calendars, we can use Asana, or any other thing which exports RSS or ical. The idea is to minimise email traffic, make things easy to find and share, and let our robot overlords do as much work as possible.

Once the forum7 comes online in a few days, we will be using it to interact with the wider community, and hopefully return to using email for what it was intended for - private and direct communications.

Resist the Urge !

Email is not evil, we’re stuck in our ways.

It’s just way too easy to fire off an email and think we’ve accomplished something. Actually, all we’ve done is create future work. Somebody is going to have to find it, read it, file it, quote it, ad-infinitum. However:

  1. If you’re sending a “chatty” email (couple of lines), just to say “hey, I need thing”, “have you done X yet ?”, “where’s document Y ?”, “have you read this or that ?” - which clearly wants a response soonish … why not just ask that same thing in a private message in Slack, or better yet mentioning the person you are talking to, but in a general channel so that if someone else can help you, they will. This is not the same as sending a mail, because it’s clear who the message is for, it implies that you want a quick response and and if someone else is interested in the outcome, they can participate directly, without disturbing the rest of the list (by talking in a specific channel, for example, which implies a context).
  2. If you’re sending a “long” email - trying to put across a point of view, a reasoned argument, or list of important things, then why not write a post ? For one thing, you’ll have lost nothing in terms of time, because the same amount of time will be needed to write the post. Actually scrap that - you’ll be able to write somewhat faster, because you’re given the writing tools that help you structure your thoughts. Also, the content will be displayed in a way that’s conducive to reading which is of course the final aim of your communication - it wants to be read.

Just taking that extra second to think about the purpose and destination of your communication will save both you and the people it’s meant for a lot of future stress. Slowly, gently, I hope we can nudge ourselves to working better :smile:

References and footnotes

  1. Even in 2008 and before, people were decrying the beast we’d set upon ourselves. 

  2. The oatmeal’s take on the email monster 

  3. Paul Jones has a fantastic #noemail category on his blog 

  4. Kostadin Kushlev, Elizabeth W. Dunn, Checking email less frequently reduces stress, Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 43, February 2015, Pages 220-228, ISSN 0747-5632, 

  5. [verb: silo] - isolate (one system, process, department, etc.) from others. “most companies have expensive IT systems they have developed over the years, but they are siloed” 

  6. Sure, other messaging platforms are out there, and having use a few of them (hipchat, yammer, etc), I don’t think anything comes close to what Slack’s doing. 

  7. Forums are a notoriuously bad idea, but we’ve taken on the task of running one in concert with other projects. Wanting to do it Right™, I found Discourse. I guess I’ll be gushing about that next.