Responding to John Robb, Re: Email, IM, Weblogs

April 14, 2002

Earlier this week I read something John Robb wrote on his weblog. He was trying to explain why weblogging and Instant Outlining (I/O) was superior to email (including mailing lists and discussion groups) and Instant Messaging

I disagreed with just about every point. I wrote my counterpoint that night, and finished it just past midnight. I decided it wasn't a good idea to post something written so late at night, and decided to let it sit a couple of days and look back at what I wrote. After some editing, this is what I arrived at.

I encourage you to reply to this in my discussion group with your comments. :-)

John Robb Jim Roepcke  
# Here's my thinking on why Instant Outlining (I/O) and weblogs provide value beyond what's provided by e-mail and instant messaging. Sell What You Have is a long-time UserLand tradition. (It's not a bad tradition mind you) So take it with a grain of salt that they push their stuff and dis what they don't offer.

Prediction: As soon as Radio has tighter integration with Jabber and the benefits of IM (whether high level or low level like event notifications) become clear, IM will become a great thing again and only e-mail will remain as inferior. Until Radio does e-mail, of course, at which point e-mail will be good too. :-)

# Both IM and e-mail are great tools for conversations between consenting individuals. Beyond that, e-mail and IM break down, and weblogs and I/O take over. Here are three reasons why: Who has unconsenting IM conversations? That doesn't make sense... if you don't want to IM set your status to away or quit your IM application.
# Scalability and information overload. Everyone is facing information overload. There is too much information that the average person needs to know to function effectively. So how should you get this information? Right now, most people get it through e-mail. However, for those of us on the leading edge of online workflow, the volume of informational e-mails has exceeded our ability to parse it. Why? Email clients have the ability to filter email into different folders. Some are better at this than others, but there are clients that do a remarkable job of this.

I filter each mailing list into its own folder, and I set up rules to filter email from people I know into their own folders. The personal filters only apply to emails not already filtered by the higher-precedence mailing list filters.

The only email I see in my inbox is mail from people I rarely or never have received email from. And spam, but most email clients and servers have tools available to effectively filter most of that.

# E-mail is a terrible one-to-many publishing tool. Not because the technology can't do it, it can, but because the volume of information published by an increasing number of publishers crowds out its basic functionality: conversations. UserLand has many (dozens?) of mailing lists intended as one-to-many and many-to-many conversations.

If this is so ineffective why not turn off all the lists and make everyone communicate via weblogs and instant outlines? Hey it's a bootstrap!

# Finding a valid conversation in the stack of inbox spam from friends, co-workers, and nameless hawkers of "penis enlargers" is frustrating and increasingly futile. I totally understand the weakness in e-mail for ad-hoc conversations. It would be nice if all email clients had the abilities to create "one time mailing lists" for discrete one-on-one or group conversations.

But you know what, email already does that, with the in-reply-to field, it's just that most email clients don't show your email in threaded form.

Side note: Conversant understands threads and shows conversations threaded on the web and through NNTP, even for communication that originates solely through email.

Side note 2: I think it's cool that Conversant sites/lists are called Conversations. They GET the importance of conversation in collaboration.

# In contrast, weblogs and I/O provide publishers a place to put relevant information where it can be found by interested parties. Only if they know to look. That problem is lessened with pub-sub systems but one still has to subscribe to be notified, and the notification typically doesn't describe what the update is as clearly as an email subject header or an instant message.

Email is also an audit trail of sorts. If you sent the person the email, and it didn't bounce, they GOT the email (for all intents and purposes, anyway). That doesn't apply to pub-sub pull systems like instant outlines and weblogs.

# It rationalizes the flow and allows it to scale. It is a parallel processing environment for the mind. We're at the end of the Scalability section but he hasn't explained how weblogs or instant outlines scale, or how they rationalize the flow as he puts it. I don't understand that "parallel processing environment" comment at all. Humans don't parallel process conversations. If he's referring to parallel data sources, then forking off your email into folders based on rules/filters is just as effective, and it's local and typically indexed for fast local retrieval of information.

Weblogs have scaling issues in that the information you need in a one-off search is probably going to be surrounded by a lot of other information that is out of context and of no value to your immediate information need. Most weblogs also have inadequate localized search facilities. This can be remedied by having more advanced meta data on weblogs and weblog items, and having more weblogs for more discrete topics.

I didn't write this with the intention of mentioning Conversant a bunch of times, but I think it's worth mentioning that each "conversation" in Conversant can have as many weblogs (individual and/or group contributed) as desired. And conversations are thorougly indexed and searchable.

Instant Outlines have huge scaling problems. Each time an outline is found to have been updated, the whole thing has to be downloaded again. If the updated information isn't at the top (or bottom in the case of chronological outlines) it's hard to tell what's changed since the last update. Downloading updates takes longer and longer as the outline gets longer (over time). The remedy is to trim the outline, requiring the author to archive their history. Weblogs already do this, they're inherently chronological and permalinked from the start. Instant Outlines don't have permalinks. Radio's outliner doesn't support the equivalent of HTML anchors, so you can only link to whole outlines, not particular outline nodes.

# Passive vs. active. E-mail and IM demand my attention and my time (a dwindling resource) when I am least able to provide it. The tools force me to read something I am not prepared to read (granted, e-mail is more passive than phone calls). If you don't have time to read email, don't read it. If you don't have time to chat in IM, set your status to Away or Busy or quit your IM app.
# In contrast, Weblogs and I/O leverage my time. They put me in control. I can batch process my interactions with individuals and groups. How is this any different than email and lists? How is this different than leaving an IM window idle until you have time to reply to the last ping?
# I can expand my circle of personal interactions and collaboration with little fear of being overwhelmed by the resulting interactions. Mailing lists have unsubscribe features (and don't forget about filtering). IM products allow you to restrict incoming messages to people on your own buddy list. You're in complete control. I don't understand what problems he's having that aren't already solved by the systems in place.
# For me, the ability to time-shift in a passive collaborative environment makes me infinitely more productive. I totally understand that. That's why I love working from home... or should I say, away from the office.
# Thinking in a massively active and interruption driven environment is like wearing a thought inhibiter. Sounds to me like he has problems managing the expectations of the people he communicates with. If he always reply to IMs immediately, always reply to emails immediately, people come to expect that they can get an answer quickly. But that's a problem one creates for themself.

The Instant Outline buddy window with it's bold lines for updated outlines is just as interrupt driven, and worse because you have no idea what has changed (no meta data from a subject line or similar) and no idea what's changed once you look unless it's plainly obvious.

# Quality and complexity. Weblogs and I/O allow me to construct and publish complex thinking. True. I'm a big fan of weblogs and outliners for those reasons.
# Further, it archives that thinking so it isn't lost. Archives are only useful if their locations are permanent. Archives are even more usable if they're searchable. Weblogs have permalinks which are useful and are searchable. Instant Outlines do not have either today. To achieve that level of functionality will require a massive overhaul of the current system (which I think is absolutely necessary to make it useful and usable).
# The conversational nature of e-mail and IM make sharing complex thoughts difficult and more time consuming. John should spend some more time evaluating threaded email clients and NNTP.

John should also know from his Knowlege Management research that communication skills are learned and honed with experience, and sharing complex thoughts is challenging and time consuming no matter what medium is used.

# It's hard, if not impossible to build a body of work that conveys a complex idea or plan. Additionally, I can't easily leverage previous thinking or the thinking of others to create a more complex work. I don't understand why not, and how weblogs and instant outlining helps in this regard. Sounds like a red herring. RSS is the only thing about Radio that can help someone incorporate others work into their own, and that still has to be massaged greatly to be made coherent in a stand alone document.

If Instant Outlining was more like Paolo's Shared Outline system or the persistent threaded IM system I wrote over two years ago (in Radio), he wouldn't have these problems.

# The ephemeral nature of e-mail and IM is like thinking in quicksand. Is John using a really horrible email client? He needs one that indexes his email and filters it into neater piles. That statement suggests he doesn't have his IM client archive his chats on the fly and index them for fast retrieval of information.

I use on Mac OS X which indexes all my email and VERY quickly returns relevant messages to keywords in the Subject, Body, From and To fields of messages. Microsoft's Entourage e-mail client does the same and offers innovative "Mail Views" which are dynamic queries on its database of messages. I'd use it (I even paid for it) but it's database has a 2GB size limit which makes it unusable for me. I use for IM which archives and indexes all my chat conversations. It also has a GUI for chronologically browsing and searching this information.

# Conclusion

Conversant's threaded mailing lists / NNTP newsgroups / web discussion boards, fine grained weblogs, along with pervasive search technology solves nearly of the issues that John has brought up. Then again, so do best of breed e-mail clients and IM clients.

I believe greatly in the value of weblogs when they're done properly. Outlining is also something I believe in but it's application in collaboration requires some serious infrastructure which currently is not in place in Radio. Hopefully it will be some day. Until then, I see Instant Outlines as unorganized weblogs authored in an outliner.

Written on April 14, 2002