Bring back the busy signal

Email and communication are badly broken and the solution isn’t so much new technology as new norms. We need to redefine “rude.”

The problem is clear: If you’re like me, you get so much email that you can’t possibly answer it promptly if it all, and messages that do matter get lost under mountains of rubbish. Under old norms — from the era of letters and phone calls and knocks on doors — ignoring a message would be considered rude.

Perhaps what should be considered rude today is expecting you to immediately answer a message you didn’t ask for. And shouldn’t it be presumptuous for people to say they want “only 20 minutes” of your time, with no knowledge of how busy you are and how those many 20 minutes add up? Don’t we need new signals to let people know that we won’t answer every message, that some just aren’t important enough? Shouldn’t the person asking for our attention feel obliged to explain how the contact is relevant to our needs and desires? And shouldn’t we have a right to tell people that we can’t or don’t want to talk right now? Bring back the busy signal!

We are in a process of negotiating new norms for new circumstances. That is what we are also doing in the realm of privacy as we parry for a consensus about what’s OK to share with and about friends and what’s OK for a company to know about us. In public, we’re trying to settle on proper behaviors relating to talking on a mobile phone on the street or a train. Many of us are testing the line of old rudeness when we pull out a smart phone to read it when in the company of another person (e.g., if the other person answers a phone call, it’s fair game for me to check my email, right?) or when someone in person interrupts the conversation we’re having on our smartphone. And most of us wish for norms that would manage the problem of trolls and assholes and their bad behavior online.

Norms. Technology is causing change and our behaviors lag that until we settle on new norms. We start by trying to enforce old rules until we figure out that they are irrelevant. Then we operate without rules.

Then we lie. In the early digital days, when we missed an email, we’d say, “My email must be broken.” We’d throw AOL under the bus. But then Outlook and Google came along and email got better. So next came, “You must have been caught in my spam filter.” Then spam filters got better. Now, we can shrug and say, “Oh, sorry, Gmail must not have thought you were a priority.” VC Fred Wilson told his readers that if Gmail sends a missive to his “everything else” list then “I most likely won’t see it.” Same for me. We’re just blaming technology and technology can improve, robbing us of excuses.

danah boyd takes the occasional email sabbatical, letting would-be correspondents know that she simply will not see, open, or respond to any email sent between two dates and challenging them to find her if really necessary. I needed to reach her recently and succeeded (but I’ll do her the favor of keeping my path secret). Though danah’s method is tempting, it’s no solution, for we would miss communication we do, in fact, need.

The real problem is that we don’t have control. Bob Wyman, a brilliant technologist at Google (founder of PubSub and other startups), sat me down recently and explained the original sin of email: that the sender controls when the recipient should. It took me a while to understand that. Sender-control opens the door for people you know to make demands on you without you wanting them to. It opens the door for people you don’t know to bother you. And, of course, it opens the door to spam.

Google+, on the other hand, gives the recipient control: I decide whom to circle or follow and whom I wish to read. Soon after it started, Google+ had a spam problem: anyone could send you notifications. So G+ gave you control over that, limiting notifications to people you follow. Sadly, that cuts off the serendipitous ability of anyone out there to reach you. But it was a necessary change, else G+ would have become spammed to death. The other area that can be spammed is comments and G+ is having to add more and more controls. Bottom line: Recipient must control. Bob’s right.

None of that solves the social problem, though. We still need to be able to tell some people that we are too busy for them, that they don’t matter to us, that we don’t want to do what they are asking us to do, that we are not interested in what they have to say, that they are bothering us, that we aren’t friends, that we aren’t going to read what they send us, unbidden … without being considered rude. One way or another, we need to make such unpleasant communication part of our new norm. We need to learn how to say “no.”

We see the beginnings of that negotiation in Twitter: Anyone can follow me (unless I block them) but no one can send me a direct message until I follow them. So people ask: If you follow me I can send you a message. Is it rude not to? We’re figuring that out. If I do follow this person and he abuses the privilege, spamming my feed or sending me too many DMs, then I’ll unfollow him. Is that rude?

I needed to reach Fred Wilson, whom I know, not long ago. I know Fred is a very busy man with no end of people begging for attention (and money). So I don’t bug him unless I need to. But when I needed to, he didn’t answer me and I figured my message was likely being relegated to “everything else” by Gmail because I’m not a regular correspondent with Fred. I pinged Fred on Twitter; he responded immediately. Bugs in the system.

Leo Laporte has confessed that for some communication, he waits until the person sending a message sends it a few times. If it’s that important, goes the thinking, then they’ll try again and that will make it bubble up. I’ll confess to having done that, too. Rude? Perhaps. But it’s one way to get others to prioritize your mail.

Leave it to Europeans to try to regulate email behavior: VW is deactivating mobile messages to employees in off hours. But that’s not very satisfying: What if there is an emergency? What if you want to meet a colleague for a drink on a trip? What defines regular off hours in an international corporation?

We keep looking for solutions for recipients, coping with the increasing tide of irrelevance overtaking us. But that only makes it worse for legitimate senders and increases the risk that someone you want to get through can’t. What if you need to reach someone you don’t know? There needs to be an airlock someone can enter and knock, asking you to open the door and telling you why it would be worth your while. LinkedIn is rather like that, trying to use social connections to reach others through degrees of separation. Problem is: it creates one more way to send beseeching requests to people along the way: “Will you introduce me to so-and-so? Will you use your social capital with her on my behalf?” What if I don’t want to? Is that rude?

I face this problem with students in schools other than my own who come asking for interviews. I feel awful saying no — especially because I work at a journalism school that sends students out to interview others. But I get so many of these requests — “I just need 20 minutes” — that if I tried to be a nice guy and responded to them all, I’d have no time for my own students and my own work. The rare student who asks a cogent, well-thought-out, well-researched, and brief question will get a response so long as I have time. Too many of these requests are wildly broad: “What is the future of journalism?” Honest to God, I get that one often. I don’t bother; they seem to be thoughtless shotgun queries. If the student asks a question I’ve written about and I have time, I’ll send instructions about how to use Google’s “site:” search and find it on my blog. But most times, I have to say no and I feel like a shmuck being put in the position where I feel guilty doing so. I don’t like circumstances to make me feel rude.

I have no solutions. The technology will improve. Maybe Google+ and Facebook with their recipient controls become primary means of communication with people we know and email becomes an everybody-else channel with smarter and smarter Gmail filters to bubble up the ever-rarer relevant message. But that won’t solve the social problem. We need to settle on new norms that redefine what’s polite and appropriate and what’s not: what’s rude.