#noemail interview: Paul Jones abandons his inbox (QnA)

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A person who looks surprised


Co-author:  Paul Jones

We wrote yesterday about some early technologists' move away from email--and Paul Jones, professor at UNC-CH (and more) was kind enough to not only co-author the piece, but answer our questions about the why and how of his inbox migration. Here's our questions and his responses in full.

What has surprised you the most about broaching this kind of change? How supportive is the university? Tech peers? Friends? Family?

Well, there is as you might guess a range of anticipation and anxiety on all sides. After all, I’ve been using email, and, I’m sorry now to say, encouraging others to use email for about 30 years. I campaigned hard to get everyone at UNC on email back in 1988.

For the most part, folks are okay with this little project (see generational notes on blog tho). The biggest shocker has been the folks who were angry with me for even suggesting that I wouldn’t be answering email--the “You used to be my friend” kinds of messages. Although a couple of those came from people who I like a lot but only correspond with infrequently, I would have expected a little more flexibility.

Two groups of people are the most frustrated with me--so far. Make that 3: folks over 55 in general, folks who demand open source solutions exclusively (but will accept Gmail or Outlook), and folks whose workflow demands email (and would have to treat me as an exception case).

Overall, folks under 55 understand completely.

Do you have a backup plan? Is there an emergency email you’ll keep around?

No emergency plan so far. As a longtime sys admin, this is a rare thing, as I usually have about a dozen alternatives in mind when I make a big change. But this time, just jumping in--and asking folks to suggest alternatives--seemed like the right thing to do.

There is a chance that I could fail at this experiment. Note that Knuth and Suarez both have little grey areas in their #noemail projects too. I think there are four spheres that influence tech changes--policy (someone with authority could require a change be made and be able to enforce that), social (enough people are frustrated with #noemail or loving it to matter), psychological (how I end up feeling about this as it progresses), technological (the increased support for hyper integration and activity streams could require email or make the #noemail project easier).

I do wonder if accepting email into an activity stream like Facebook messages counts as cheating or not. Similarly would it be cheating to route mail or part of mail through Google Voice or another switchboard service?

What led to this idea? Knuth and Suarez? Your own frustration? Spam?

For some time, I’ve been watching work on hyper aggregators (like Mugshot attempted to do) and activity streams (much work on this going on now) and communications integration (like Facebook messaging, Google Gtalk + Gmail + Gwhatever + AIM) and wondering how to more fully take advantage of them in a smart way.

Since I don’t have a smart way or couldn’t find one right off, I decided that the only way that I would get serious was to break my routines and take email out of the center of my personal communications sphere.

I was increasingly frustrated by the Rube Goldberg contraption that email has become particularly in the face of the galaxy of specialized services that could be and are variously interoperable and by far superior.

What’s your biggest concern?  What are you afraid you will miss?

Payday! Seriously, I do have concerns that my project may have a negative impact on students that I work with on research as many of the research alerts and reporting involves some sort of email exchange. In most cases, the students that I work with in class and on research would rather use IM of some sort, but the parts of the institution that manage research and grading, etc. are overly dependent on email.

People seem really, really offended by the idea of you not answering your email. Why do you think this is?

I mentioned the three groups that are offended above. Each has their own good reasons to feel that my choice places an uncomfortable and unnecessary burden on them.

Folks whose regular work routines depend on email or have been built around email and who have no institutional alternatives that work very well are the easiest to appreciate. Luis Suarez can point his IBM coworkers to Lotus Connections and improve his company. My challenge is a bit more complex as there is no real institutional solution for activity streams and I work with many folks outside what Suarez might consider corporate email.

Folks who have selected certain applications for certain communications--LinkedIn for their businesses, Facebook for their families, Gmail (or whatever) for the others, say--don’t like having those routines broken. I can understand that complaint easily. By and large, this is the over-55 age group.

Open source friends who don’t want The Man to own their stuff are the final group. I appreciate this group’s complaints as well. I only wish there were some great open source and/or open protocol apps and environments that would make using Facebook or Twitter more open and more fun.

You notice that I’m part of each of these groups myself. I’ve been a state employee for over 30 years, I’m over 55 and tend to get routinized and stuck with certain solutions, and I love and promote and prefer open source.

I noted that you were careful to avoid moving your email eggs into one single basket, but using different tools for different tasks--choosing, one would think, the tool best suited per endeavor. Is this fragmentation the likely direction we’re all heading? In other words, is the comms shift--which was towards consolidation--simply going to swing back towards speciality?

The point of the #noemail project is to engage more deeply in specialized and inter-operative tools for communications and planning and social engagement. So yes, Google apps for document sharing (like now); Dropbox or Box.com for larger files; Facebook, Diaspora, Hunch, Quora for somethings; Gtalk, AIM, Jabber, FB chat, Skype, etc. for quick communications; various approaches to location; Google calendar--as I’ve used it for several years; etc.

What I’m after is an approach that will allow my friends and co-workers and students to sort out which apps to use and to drop and how to form the usage of each. We’re in a very dynamic moment in these areas, and I expect to see a lot of new apps, a lot of changes to existing ones (big changes for Google and Facebook in the past few weeks for example), and a lot vanishing for various reasons (almost lost Delicious, or is it gone?).

Interoperability and hyper-aggregation rather than any unitary solution is more likely to be successful in the long run. I’m betting, as many are, on some sort of intelligent solutions for dealing with activity streams--some of those streams, like location a few years back, not even collected as yet--to help make sense of the world of communications and cooperation. Even if I just set up an instance of Firefox with a bunch of tabs to all of those services, I’m ahead of the jury-rigged mess that is email.

We'll revisit Professor Jones and his email experiment in a few weeks to see what's worked and what hasn't, and if his inbox could be out for good.

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Editor, writer, and developer. I wear many hats, including the red one. Graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism; long-time interest in all things geeky. Editor of Red Hat Magazine and grizzled industry veteran, including time as an archivist for SunSITE UNC (now ibiblio.org) and ten-plus years at my current gig. I love:

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