IT Confidential: Is There Anything That Can Be Done About E-Mail?

I don't know about your e-mail inbox, but the flood of electronic messages I'm getting is reaching biblical proportions.

John Soat, Contributor

February 16, 2007

3 Min Read

There's something sinister about E-mail.

First, there's its sheer quantity. The most recent research I've read estimates E-mail volume at almost 200 billion messages a day. That translates into every person on earth receiving more than 30 E-mail messages every day. (That being the case, I'm receiving more than my share.) Those are the kinds of numbers they throw around in Washington when they talk about the deficit or the shortfall in Social Security. I can imagine it as a biblical plague: And the earth was visited by 10 million locusts, 20 billion frogs, and 200 billion E-mails.

Wait, I forgot about spam, which represents a conservative 70% of that number. Spam I picture as the robot armies sent by the alien invaders, constantly reproducing, relentlessly advancing. And when I see the E-mails promoting Viagra, stock tips, and porn still getting through to my in-box, I realize my brave little corporate spam filter is fighting a valiant but losing battle.

Speaking of spam, can somebody please explain how it is that phishing--the E-mail scam that tricks people into giving up their personal data--continues to flourish? Hey, there seems to be a problem with my Bank of America savings account, according to this E-mail I just received--I better click on this link and do everything it says. What's wrong with those people? Aren't they reading the E-mail warnings they receive about this kind of fraud?

Then there's the ubiquity of E-mail. The Radicati Group, a research firm, estimates there are about 1.1 billion E-mail users, and 1.4 billion active E-mail accounts, worldwide. (OK, maybe I am receiving my fair share.) Wireless Internet connectivity means people can access their E-mail almost anywhere. The advance of mobile E-mail technology--the E-mail service available on cell phones and BlackBerrys (known as "push" E-mail, please note)--erases the "almost" from that equation.

And that speaks to the addictive nature of E-mail (see "push" above). Last week Visto, a mobile E-mail service provider, reported that 60% of respondents to a survey it recently sponsored say that, a year ago, they thought mobile E-mail was too expensive, but that now 70% consider it "less exclusive" and affordable. Of the 40% of respondents who use mobile E-mail now, 29% say it has "simply become a necessity in their lives," Visto says.

After all that, it turns out E-mail may not be very effective. In fact, there's significant potential for miscommunication with E-mail, according to a research study published this month in the Academy Of Management Review. The study, by Kristin Byron, an assistant professor of management in the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, explains that E-mail is very poor at expressing emotions, and people often read emotional content into E-mail where none was intended, according to a release from the university announcing the study. It's simple: "Miscommunication in E-mails can be caused by senders' inability to accurately convey their intended meaning and by receivers' inability to perceive the senders' intended meaning," says Byron. As a result, she recommends that companies consider offering training in the use of E-mail. "With the increasing reliance on E-mail in the workplace, understanding how to effectively communicate emotions by E-mail is crucial."

You've got about a 1-in-200-billion chance of getting your message across.

I personally get all choked up about my E-mail (in more ways than one), especially those industry tips, so send them to [email protected], or phone (if you have to) 516-562-5326.

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