It began slowly at first, in the elevator in our building - a neighbor who my college-age son had done some computer work for said: "your son isn't returning my emails" .
Harmless enough - college can keep you busy, I presumed.
But then I heard it again, from my brother, my mom and frankly, my wife.
I began to wonder what was going on. Max is no slacker, hardly shy and connected 24/7 with various "i" devices (iphone, macbook pro, etc).
So, over the holiday break I broached the question; "is there some reason you're not answering email?"
His answer was so casual I found it startling; "Yeah, because email is broken."
This lead me to investigate. What were these emails that he was ignoring? Each of them - in themselves- was benign. A link to an article in the New York Times my mother thought he might enjoy. A photo, a birthday present question, offers of holiday transport, gigs for some spare cash over the break. All helpful, supportive, friendly. Taken individually - they were each reasonable. But taken together - the pings, links, questions, and articles were a massive and relentless stream of reminders from the adult world.
Flashback to when I was in college. I left home, arrived at school - and was on my own. There was a pay phone at the end of the hall, and from time to time it would ring for me. On a rare occasion I would call home - collect. But there were no interactions with grandparents, or cousins, or uncles - or my mom's neighbors. It seems in our casual connectedness we've created a friendly barrage of endless interactions.
I asked my son about this - and he explained; "Dad, between Facebook and text messages on my phone - I'm barely able to respond to my close friends." And, of course, the larger social network that he's developed between middle school, high school, camp, and the college age friends of friends that are part of his digital world.
I don't pretend to know what goes on in that world. I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to. We're not Facebook friends (though happily very much friends in RW - (real world).
But if my memory serves me correctly, keeping your social life in some sort of order was pretty complex back when I was in college. And back then, my world was much smaller - and the interactions took place mostly at a local bar.
So, how does it work today I wondered... is email really 'dead'? Are the communications of college students all now text lingo like "how r u" or 140 character tweets? Voicemail is almost never listened to.
No, my son explains - he does read emails from the college about courses, and he will read emails or answer his phone when it rings - but only if someone texts him first and says: "I'm going to call you."
What he's facing is frankly no different that what we're all facing - an overwhelming steady stream of undifferentiated information. Emails from folks that are 'checking in', CC's on topics we don't care about, endless spam, and the occasion critical communication buried in the pile.
The problem is that the email takes little effort to create, and costs nothing to send. And, what my son doesn't say but probably thinks is "if I respond to all my relatives, neighbors, and distant friends - then I'm encouraging them to send me more pings, links, and friendly notes - social interaction that I don't have the time to read or respond to."
So, what am I doing to not pollute the 'social stream' of my friends and loved ones?
- I'm posting more, and emailing less. On Facebook, my friends can check out what's going on with me when then have time, and without having to respond.
- I'm forwarding less, sending links less, and taking more responsibility for other peoples time and attention.
- And, I'm collecting things I want to share with folks until I see them in person. Rather than 5 'pings' I'm replacing them with a single conversation.
We're all guilty of irresponsible email - and our children in particular are facing a level of digital input that we can hardly imagine. In the future, we'll need to curate our inbox - and find new tools to help us keep track of the time critical, subject critical information. Otherwise, my son and his classmates will respond with polite 'thank you' notes to the 5 links they've been forwarded from The New York Times, and miss the registration deadline for the spring semester. That would be unfortunate.
Steve Rosenbaum is founder and CEO of Magnify.net, and the Author of the forthcoming McGrawHill Business book "Curation Nation" (March / 2011). Steve can be contacted at email@example.com Follow Steve Rosenbaum on Twitter: www.twitter.com/magnify
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