New Research on Email: Social is more important than Importance

We seldom see affordances in our tools based on the strength of our social connections

In a recently reported study on email (the grandiosely entitled Evolution of Conversations in the Age of Email Overload, by Kooti et al) one interesting factoid was uncovered:

Emailing behavior was studied predominantly on small-scale data and often using qualitative methods. The attitude of email users towards work email was investigated through organizational surveys, finding that the social nature of the message is a stronger motivation to reply than the “importance” of the message.

I’m unsurprised by the result, which accords with the social nature of everything at work. However, the implications for the design and adoption of social tools at work (or ‘work technologies’ if you want or need to avoid the S word) are profound. Just consider the premises about ‘importance’ in activity streams, search, and something as simple as assigning a level of importance to a task in a shared project space in a work management tool.

We seldom see affordances in our tools based on the strength of our social connections. Instead, it’s left to the social hivemind in each of us, and in groups at all scales, to determine the true, social importance of messages, whether in email or any other medium of social communications. This is due to the engineering-oriented, efficiency mindset that continues to dominate the design of our work tools, disregarding how the mind actually perceives the world.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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