A rant about mobile emails

What happens if you push emails to your phone? Initially people will be impressed -- how can you answer my emails so quickly? Then people may start to send more emails to you because you answer them very fast. Then you get more emails compared to the others. Emails pop in any time during the day -- all emails, whether important or not. You check email in real time almost religiously. Your first-line channel becomes second line.

For the better or worse, the rise of smartphones and consumers willing to spend a few more dollars every month (for a data plan) have made checking emails, Facebook, Twitter etc. as easy as answering a call or reading text messages. Sure, updating Facebook or Twitter every time you are queuing for food can be fun. Also, having email access in my hands every time has surely saved me numerous trips to the library. But getting Facebook notification pushed to your phone? Getting a notification for every email that came in right away? I personally think it's too much.

Nowadays casual information is so cheap, so much that there is a term "information overload". We have too much information being pushed to ourselves, so systems that can filter out unwanted or less important information have a lot of value.  You bring a mobile phone everywhere, so it is only natural that calls and text messages are the most important information channel -- if you can't be reached by those, that means you can't or don't want to be reached by anything else except direct confrontation. Especially for calls, we cannot choose when to respond -- if you don't answer, the communication fails.

For emails, you usually have to get a computer to check so it is only natural that we process emails in bulk a few times a day. Now we choose how and when we respond -- we can escalate the urgency by replying with a call or text message, just reply back with another email, or ignore the email. This is why emails can be incredibly important like test result notification or incredibly unimportant like some random people selling you sildenafil.

Triaging communication channels

You might not realize it but we all have our own expectations built into each communication channel we have access to. I might not be a communications expert but here I listed how I think the channels can be classified.

  • First line channels do not require replies at all. Replies are completely optional and can be done any time. A method to reply may not be immediately obvious. Conversations can get lost or stop in the middle just because people don't bother or forget to reply. Emails, road signs, notification boards are perfect example to this.
  • Second line channels do not require replies but you are required to check them in real-time almost religiously. If you don't, people will assume that either you are not online or you are avoiding contact. This is what text message / SMS and IMs are today.
  • Third line channels require immediate, real-time reply. This is your phone calls (you can reject calls but that means no communication at all is made). Also obviously, if you are physically conversing with people and you don't reply, people will think that you are seriously retarded.

First/second/third line means just that -- when you need to reach somebody, you try the first line first, then the second line channels if the person does not reply, then the third line. The cost of initiating the first line communication is usually lower than the second and subsequently the third line (especially when you need to communicate with a lot of people). However, communication gets more personal and more "important" down the line. Think email blast vs. telemarketing.

I personally was thoroughly irritated when I got a spam call -- yes a call -- from Singtel when I was busy doing my own stuff. I don't know you, but I won't be happier seeing spam get pushed to me during my lecture, lunch break, or wonderful conversations with my friends. And judging from the current trend I bet there are more unimportant emails compared to important ones. Don't you wish everything can be simpler? It can be simpler -- just turn off your email notifications and check them only when you want to, just like regular people!

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