Paul Jones: Can you live and work without email?

Person looking at their email inbox

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On June 1, 2011, Paul Jones gave up email. As a professor of information, he thought he had an obligation to try a better way. More than six years into his experiment, he shares his experience with a (nearly) email-free life.

Paul Jones has not given up on digital communication.

If you want to contact him, you have a lot of options. Depending on your connection to him, you might reach out on Twitter, Facebook Messenger, Slack, LinkedIn, Wire, WhatsApp, Signal or text message -- he’s connected to the world via 15 channels. (Not counting his avatar in Second Life, if you’re still into that.)

But don’t bother sending an email. Because for more than six years (the exact amount of time is tracked on his blog), he has disdained that nearly ubiquitous method of communication and bane of modern life.

He acknowledges that, as a university professor, he can stake out an extreme position. But, he says, most people could find better channels than email.

“People come in in the morning and they spend 45 minutes or an hour deleting to try to get to the stuff that’s actually useful. Then they say, ‘Well, I did a good job. I’ve got my email down to whatever number of messages.’ And we know that is not effective communication,” he said.

“I want things that are friendly, that are highly interactive, that are more like a conversation, that make sense in context, and that I can manage in different ways,” he said.

Jones is a clinical professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science. He also is the director of ibiblio, an online public library and digital archive.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership about giving up email, and how his experiment is an attempt to atone for past actions. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: So I wanted to start with the obvious question: Why quit email?

It struck me, as somebody who researches in communication, that email as a sort of catchall for everything was a high negative.

The first thing I did was say, What is the ratio of spam that Gmail is catching to the amount of stuff that actually ends up in my mailbox? It was about 9-to-1 at that point. Already nearly 90 percent was just spam.

Also, it’s not good on mobile, and I was spending much more time on my hand-held device than I was sitting down in front of a computer.

People who sit down at a computer to communicate and people who use their phone to communicate gravitate toward different communication styles. I wanted to investigate that, and I also wanted to investigate where my time investment actually paid back.

I asked, Can I keep a high level of social interaction but do it in areas in which I get differentiated reward?

Different people segregate themselves in different ways. Professionals generally use LinkedIn. Students generally want to use text. Journalists like to use Twitter, and my friends like to use Facebook. People that are very, very visual like to use Instagram, but that’s a pleasure, largely.

For people that have really particular needs, there’s a whole different set: Signal or Wire or even WhatsApp, something that has a little encryption in it. That’s not probably [a concern] for civilians, but it could be for people who are international.

I want things that are friendly, that are highly interactive, that are more like a conversation, that make sense in context, and that I can manage in different ways.

The other thing is that email is open. The upside to email when we created it was that we opened up to anybody to send anything to anybody. [To manage it] you’re creating a blacklist out of a universe of communicators.

When you’re using Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, text, Wire or Signal or something like that, it’s all about whitelists. You agree who you want to communicate with directly.

We took a group of students to Berlin and Dublin, and I said, “Do you guys want to communicate with Facebook Messenger?” and they said, “Oh, we all use GroupMe. We’ve already set it up. You can be in it too, if you’d like.”

It’s a group chat. Our group was about a dozen people, and somebody can say, “I’m up early because of jet lag. I want to go get coffee now. Who wants to go?” Those who are asleep ignore it, and then the people who want to get in it.

You could do that with email, but email is about checking email. Email is culturally established to be more of a written communication, whereas text, IM, Twitter and Messenger are a much more informal, speechlike communication.

Q: I’ve seen in other places your comments about “atoning” for advocating the adoption of email. Talk a little bit about that.

I wrote some of the first email programs that the UNC campus used in the ’80s. I lobbied to get it used for the whole campus.

Q: So you helped create the monster.

It’s a horrible infliction, and that’s something that I’m both proud of, because it was pretty innovative, and ashamed of, because it was so stupid.

Some innovations are like fish or relatives. They’re only good for a short period of time, and then they need to move on. Email is in that area exactly.

One of my other jokes that really tells the truth is that I have something I call “the ages of email.” Briefly, it’s like the ages of man.

The first one is people under 18: “What is email?” They don’t even use it.

Then it’s people 18 to about 25: “Email is stuff ‘the man’ sends me.” They’re all using some sort of texting and messenger environment. Email lapses and sits in the mailbox unused in that group until they get around to it.

Then the next group is “I don’t want to use email, but my boss makes me use it.” These are the people under about 40. When they’re communicating with their friends or their peers or their loved ones, it’s almost all text or messaging. When they do email, it’s usually to some authority figure.

The next one is “I want to be the man.” It’s what you have to do to get along with the man, and those are generally people that are a little bit under 50.

The next one is “I am the man.” They don’t even use their phone. The print on it is too small. They will go home, or they’ll go into their office, and say, “OK, it’s time to check email.” They’ll rarely answer an email on their phone.

The last one is those people that have retired: “I only would go there to see pictures of my grandchildren, but now they’re on Facebook, so what do I care?”

Q: I imagine people might agree with you about email, but how can they really get off it? What about all those emails that we’re all cc’d on for multiple work projects? How do you manage that?

This is not for normal people. What I’m doing is intentionally extreme. I do this so you don’t have to suffer. It’s my little sacrifice.

If you send email to jones@unc.edu, you’ll get a note back that has a priority list of how I answer stuff.

So what do I do? I use something that will thread messages. I subscribe to the RSS feeds of the essential lists that are sent by listservs that I actually want. I have Feedly for that.

I’ll check it maybe twice a day, so if some emergency happens in which they notify all the faculty about something, I might possibly not get it for four to six hours. But people not checking their email would probably also have the same thing. Or if you’re in a bunch of meetings. It’s not so bad.

I’ve changed it, as you might guess, several times over the past six years, because some things have kind of gone away -- Google Plus, for example.

Some new things have become really good -- secure messaging, like Signal and Wire. Once that became secure, that was good. And Facebook messaging actually became better -- more like messaging and less like Facebook.

Q: What are the pluses? What are the minuses? What were the surprises?

Well, the plus is, the quality of what I get out of communication is better.

If I really want amusement and breaking news and that kind of thing, I look at Twitter. If I really want to be in touch with my friends, I look at Facebook. So that’s all good.

Also, phones now aggregate and let you manage the alert levels that you get, based on the application. I can say I only want direct messages from Twitter. Then I won’t miss anybody.

The minuses are that some people -- and I’m sensitive to this -- their job revolves around email.

These people just want to come and sit down at their desk, communicate with faculty the way their boss wants them to communicate with it, and arrange these meetings. They don’t need Paul’s weird stuff.

So I’ve tried to figure out different ways to humanize that communication. Because they’re already in a dehumanizing position, frankly, even when they’re sending you the email.

I make it my business to walk down the hall and just have a brief but nice conversation with them once or twice a day, so that then they’ll go, “Oh, I was just going to call you” or “I was just going to write you” or “You don’t do email, so let me tell you this right now.”

That actually is a very nice interchange. It takes them off task slightly, but it adds human value in a good way.

I certainly didn’t think I would have to do that. I probably am not completely perfect at it, but I think I’m moving toward something a little bit better there.

One other surprise is my students didn’t even blink an eye. They went, “Oh, yeah. I don’t IM or text or message most of my professors, but the thing is, when I message you, I get a response like right away.” Because I make that a top priority.

If I have a student that says, “I don’t understand the assignment” or “I don’t know what I’m doing” or “Can I come by your office?” I want to respond very quickly.

Nobody responds very quickly on email, so they immediately get something better out of it. And often, we get things pretty quickly resolved.

I have missed a couple of things, like I didn’t get a sale at Old Navy or I didn’t get a discount at a day spa.

Q: Have you found that your other channels are overrun the way your email is overrun?

Not really, because whitelisting really works for you. It lets me manage things like that.

I have a work group, and none of -- the people working on ibiblio -- and we don’t exchange email. We do everything in Slack, and so you can see everything that’s going on pretty quickly.

It’s like a chatroom. So that’s really changed the way we work in a very positive way.

Q: As you said earlier, you’re going to extremes to prove a point, and you’re also in a certain kind of position; you work at a university in information science.

I’m taking some hits and doing things in an extreme way and maybe making things uncomfortable for other people so that I can find out how things are progressing. It’s my job. There are probably not a whole lot of businesses that would pay me to do this, but it has value.

That’s why we’re a university. That’s one of the things a university does, besides train students. We push knowledge and experience forward.

Q: So for someone who is not in that situation -- who is working in a business, working in an office -- are there interim changes you would recommend?

Luis Suarez -- @ELSUA on Twitter -- has been doing this for almost a decade, and he has a number of recommendations. He was without email at IBM for about seven years, just trying to see if you can do everything social and open when appropriate. He has a number of really good suggestions.

Q: Do you think this is actually catching on? I noticed you mentioned a book on your blog called “Under New Management,” in which the first chapter is “Outlaw Email.”

There are a number of management books that are coming out because of the amount of time that email consumes.

People come in in the morning and they spend 45 minutes or an hour deleting to try to get to the stuff that’s actually useful. Then they say, “Well, I did a good job. I’ve got my email down to whatever number of messages.” And we know that is not effective communication.

The big data is really about generational stuff that the Pew Research Center has done. But there is some other evidence out there. There are businesses that do things like no-email Friday or an annual no-email day or something like that.

It’s really hard, frankly, if you’re in customer service, because you want to be responsive to customers.

You could look at your internal communications as something separate and convert that to, say, Slack or, in a small work group, GroupMe or something like that.

Or you could have an emergency channel or an encrypted channel if you needed it. Email is the least secure means of communication.

Q: Is there anything you would add that I didn’t ask you about?

People should quit using email and their life will be better. That’s it. Look up from what you’ve done out of habit and look for ways to do things better.

Q: That’s very succinct. Well, thank you very much. I will send you the link when it’s posted, but not by email.

That would be good, because that way I’ll read it.