Friday, March 21, 2008

Context Happens

Adam Shostack complains about people who prune long reply-forward-reply email chains, and makes an appeal for joined-up conversations: Context Please.

Just as unwise pruning by a gardener may kill a plant, so unwise email pruning may chop out some critical information. So we get emails confirming some meeting, or with a one-word answer to some question, but when we scroll down to find where exactly the meeting, what exactly the question, this context has been lost. Did we get the original email containing these details (possibly not, given that circulation lists often alter during an extended exchange) and if so where is it?

But that doesn't mean you should never prune, merely that you shouldn't prune mindlessly. I admit it - I'm a pruner. A long to-and-fro email exchange will often carry several copies of the same signature (including GIF images), several copies of the legal notice that some companies attach to all their outgoing emails, and several advertisements added by xyzMail.com. Chop, chop.

But there are security issues as well, which surely Adam should be aware of. An email discussion from one department may be casually forwarded to another department, or even to someone in another company, thus leaking privacy or confidentiality. I don't call this providing context, I call it taking things out of context and inviting misinterpretation or worse.

I'd prefer not to have to waste my time editing this stuff, but it saves myself and other people wasting our time reading it several more times, and sometimes it also prevents information leakage. There must be a better way of communicating and negotiating and planning and synchronizing and shared decision-making than this clumsy mass of emails. Email is a grossly overloaded technology, which was never designed to carry all this baggage.

Of course there are better technologies now emerging - but most people are still using email for everything. Sigh.

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