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Email hell.

Spam has been much in the news lately. If the experts are to be believed, the drudgery of deleting unsolicited email--frequently of a libidinous nature--is now impairing the nation's productivity, requiring otherwise hard-working employees to waste their precious time deleting it. In theory, this is costing American corporations billions of dollars in wasted man-hours. Surely, we cannot be terribly far from the moment when some major company announces that it has missed its quarterly earnings projections because of unexpected spam-related expenses.

Personally, I feel that spam rage is overstated and the numbers rather suspicious. Nobody spends all his time being productive at work, and spam can easily be deleted during the normal mental down-time that all employees allot themselves. Though often offensive and generally stupid, spam is relatively easy to identify, and deleting it can be done while sipping coffee, gazing out the window or making routine phone calls. Surely, working on one's rotisserie league baseball draft or surfing the Net takes up far more of the average employee's time.

The real problem with managing email is dealing with the enormous volumes of ordinary, work-related communications that are a complete distraction. First you get an email. Then you get a follow-up email asking if you got the first email. Then you get an email asking when you are going to respond to the first email. Then you get an email with some important item that got accidentally left out of the first email. And then you get really mad, and refuse to respond to any of the emails because you're tired of getting email. It's enough to make you wish for some interesting spam.

The net effect of all this turmoil is disastrous. It's as if the postman came to your house seven times a day with an endless series of letters asking if you got the first letter. Actually, it's worse. Most people send written communications that are in some way focused and reasonably complete. But email is a bastard communication idiom, poised somewhere between pager messages and smoke signals. Email, by its very nature, encourages the intellectually slovenly to send half-formed ideas that should not be dispatched until they are fully formed. It's a way of reaching out and touching someone who would really rather not be touched. Or before you have anything worth touching them about. What's more, it's a way of reaching out and touching them several times a day.

Technology could cure this problem, of course. Just as software can be used to detect inappropriate sexual content in online communications, programs could easily be devised to detect extraneous emails. Emails that should never have been sent in the first place, or were at the very least not time-sensitive, could be re-routed to a "third-class" electronic postal system that would deliver the communications several days after they were sent. I would even propose a form of electronic surface mail, delivering the unnecessary or annoying dispatches four to six weeks after, they had been composed. Most email is not terribly important.

If this doesn't work, more draconian measures could be instituted. One possibility: a rigorous quota system imposed on email, stipulating that employees can send no more than a handful of messages a day. Another option is a central clearinghouse inside each corporation, where some sort of communications czar would examine each email to determine whether it was worth sending. Failing this, employees could be given financial incentives to avoid sending email. I personally would be willing to pay almost everyone I know to stop sending me email. Especially those horrible jokes.

If none of these measures work, then aversion therapy may be the only solution. Mild electronic shocks administered via the keyboard to notoriously verbose emailers could nip this problem right in the bud. True, civil libertarians might object to this--so let's give them mild electronic shocks as well. It's not moronic spam that's gumming up the works in this society; it's moronic email from people who simply can't shut up.

If you object to any of the ideas presented herein, please write to me via snail mail c/o Chief Executive. No way am I giving out my email address.

Joe Queenan is the author of several best-sellers, including, most recently, True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sportsfans (Henry Holt, April 2003).
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Title Annotation:Flip Side
Author:Queenan, Joe
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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