No One’s In Charge Here—Why It’s On Us To Fix Email Together

Why It's On Us To Fix Email Together

A couple weeks back, we shared an interesting article at Medium by Tristan Harris, who, among other things, is a former Design Ethicist at Google. The article, “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds—from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist” is a wide-ranging read on how tech companies use a keen understanding of behavior psychology to “hijack” our attention and get us to engage with their products and services the way they want. For example, he discusses menu choice (i.e. the options available to the user on an offered menu) as a kind of misdirection which reframes our desires to better align with the company’s.

It’s good stuff (even though my eyes did glaze over a little the fourth or fifth time I read the word “empower”). But for our purposes I want to focus on one particular section, which he calls “Hijack #2: Put a Slot Machine In a Billion Pockets”.

In this section, he points out one reason why checking our phones can be such a compulsive, addictive behavior: intermittent variable rewards. Here’s Harris’ explanation:

If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

This is the principle by which slot machines work (“You never know what you’re gonna get! Oh, look: nothing! You’d better try again!”) and it is the same principle which drives us to pull the phones from our pockets and hit refresh for the 80th time that day. “Who knows what I’ll see this time?”

And it certainly applies to email. As Harris writes: “When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.”

So, okay, a lot of how we use our smartphones (including the way we often check email) is probably not very good for us—how do we fix it?

For the best answer to that question, we have to look at another of Harris’ observations: that in the case of email, no one designed it to be like this in the first place.

[I]n other cases, slot machines emerge by accident. For example, there is no malicious corporation behind all of email who consciously chose to make it a slot machine. No one profits when millions check their email and nothing’s there.

I think this point is key because it highlights a crucial difference between email and other internet compulsions. If a website, say Facebook or Yelp, is actively manipulating your choices in a way you find shady, you can simply choose not to use Facebook or Yelp (or form a “Facebook sucks!” group on Facebook or write a scathing Yelp review about Yelp, I guess). Facebook and Yelp are both moneymaking enterprises run by real, live human beings, and so they respond to negative feedback—whether that’s bad press or a dip in the bottom line.

But there is no CEO of EmailCorp. whom we can burn in effigy and shout at on Twitter…email won’t get better just because we use it less or we complain about it.

If we want to fix email, we’re going to need to fix email together.

Again, nobody designed email to suck. Email is the way it is because of a long history filled with accidents. A protest won’t cut it.

Harris argues that companies like Apple and Google have a responsibility to their users to help break this addiction:

For example, they could empower [ed. note: see?] people to set predictable times during the day or week for when they want to check “slot machine” apps, and correspondingly adjust when new messages are delivered to align with those times.

I don’t doubt that this could be helpful. But I think it would be even more helpful if we as email users decided to help each other.

One of the reasons we feel compelled to check email is because we never know what may have just landed in our inbox, and we never know how important or how urgent that message will be. It’s one thing to miss a weekly round-up review that can be read at our leisure, but quite another to miss an email from your boss that requires your immediate attention. So we open our emails and check again…and again…and again.

But what if we gave each other clear expectations in our emails? What if we put them right at the top? So that at a glance, our colleagues and coworkers would know immediately when (or even if) we wanted a response? This would remove the panicked uncertainty from the equation. And it would also make it easier for everyone to batch their emails and deal with them at certain times of the day if desired, since they would know exactly when they needed to get to your email and could plan accordingly.

When there is nobody in charge, we have to be. Why not help each other in a way that gets us all to better email?

Luckily, there’s an app for that.

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