Monday 12 February 2007

100 people wanted, to lose 100MB of email in 6 weeks

Here is a good question - will RSS help us to deal with information overload any better than we've managed to achieve with email? I ask this question for a couple of reasons:

  • People are still interested in "learning" how to deal with email better - for a recent analysis of the situation, see Michael Sampson's series of posts on the topic that starts here;
  • Even if organisations never reach the heady heights of Enterprise 2.0, the fact is that RSS will continue to grow in importance as an information management tool.

With that in mind, as Stu Downes asks, are we "Sleepwalking to data overload?":

"We need to be ready for this. Sooner or later the vision of everyone having an enterprise blog may become a reality. That in itself is a massive shift of information, or rather a massive addition to information (email isn’t going away). We need to think about how our information workers can consume the data efficiently and effectively. Even if enterprises don’t start blogging internally the immense volume of data in RSS feeds makes them the most useful tool within an information workers arsenal right now."

(Reading this I can't help be think of the Luis Suarez's blog roll, which he recently reduced from 700 to 448, not including another 250 non-blog feeds! Luis, I don't know how you do it!!!)

So does RSS have any advantages over email or will it simply contribute to more information overload on top of the current problems many people still experience with email right now?

If we go back to my own take on email information overload, summarised in a short article I wrote in 2005 (PDF, 81KB), I concluded then that:

"There are no quick fixes for dealing with e-mail overload. Taking control of your own inbox is an important step, but people in organisations need to work together to tackle this growing problem. Only as a group can you deal with eliminating the source of the problem and develop workable protocols to help reduce the e-mail burden on each other. So stop looking for six tips for e-mail success and focus on taking the three steps toward mastering e-mail overload in your workplace."

I think the same lessons will apply to RSS, but there are new opportunities with this particular communication technology to help reduce information overload through a combination of more open communication styles, content filtering, and content mining (look at Yahoo! Pipes for the possibilities). In other words, RSS could be used as a group communication technology where email is essentially peer-to-peer. In fact, using RSS in combination with email rather than as a replacement may be the best way to reduce and control information overload on both fronts.

However, on its own RSS will in no way be a magic bullet - if applied badly in organisations, people should be prepared for more of the same. In the meantime I can't wait to see how the email productivity advisors with their quick fixes evolve into RSS experts...


  1. Anonymous2:26 am

    Hi James ! What a great post! I thoroughly enjoyed it and I think that you are off to something. Just when people thought that syndication would probably be a good replacement for e-mail, there you go stating that may not be the case. That there needs to be some sort of balance and so forth. Spot on!

    That is exactly what I am doing, except that I am not longer using e-mail as much as I used to. I am only using it now to just send formal communications with my colleagues and whoever else.

    For the rest, and where possible I am trying to avoid using e-mail and use other methods of staying in touch, share knowledge and collaborate with others.

    You would be amazed as to how much time you can actually save from e-mail if you stay away from it for all those notes that could have come across in a different way: i.e. through RSS / Atom syndication. Examples, like official announcements, press releases, newsletters, product reviews, etc. etc. you name it. All of those are coming through my feeds now, which is why I have got those 700 feeds.

    What you see in is just a small representation of the feeds that I feel would be of benefit to other folks interested in the same stuff I am interested. To that I still get to check different feeds on the tools, both internal and external, that I get to use on a regular basis, different meme tracking offerings, and so forth. And that way it comes to the 700 ones.

    Since last time I created that blog post I have grown my feeds up to 468 shared on my blogroll template. And that will continue to grow. How do I manage it? Well, two different tips on keeping up with it as an RSS feeds junkie:

    1. I try to avoid very drastically sharing the same information in multiple resources. I just try to keep it all under a single point of entry, which means that all the time it would take me to update everything and share stuff in multiple resources is time saved up for RSS feeds catchup.

    2. Scan, scan, scan, filter, filter and filter quickly all of the news items and weblog post entries and save the ones you want to comment on further at a later time in whatever your default social bookmarking tool may well be or save them into your favourite RSS feed reader. The rest, get rid of it. There is a great chance you will never have to walk back to it. And if so, that is what Google will do for you.

    3. Walk away, whenever you can, from e-mail. I have been blogging about this in the past. E-mail is perhaps not the best tool for collaboration and knowledge sharing, therefore I try to avoid it as much as I can, only making use of it whenever I need to send something that I cannot do through whatever other means. But that is it, the rest I try to use other tools, specially social computing related tools.

    Hope that helps. I know it is not an easy thing at all. It takes time to master and a certain routing to get through it all. However, if you would want me to expand further (I already think this is a rather long reply already!) let me know and I will actually create a separate post on it. Thanks!

  2. Anonymous6:27 am

    My feeling is that RSS readers have one major advantage over e-mail where overload is concerned - they don't carry the expectation that you have to clean them out, as with an Inbox. You can skip posts or feeds and no one will know, no sender will be mad at you.

    Admittedly some people may end up creating that expectation for RSS too, to their detriment and their organization's... time will tell.

  3. James,

    Good point, my own experience with RSS is that it is very easy to choke your feed reader with so many feeds that simply opening it up takes a good 15 minutes - with a commensurately heavy load on the internet connection.

    I found that cleaning our RSS feeds was a hassle to - so in fact I've gone from being an avid RSS user to largely ignoring my feed reader. My blogroll makes it easy enough to stay in touch with blogs I care about, and I find I don't suffer that much not reading the others.

    Having said that, it would be great to see many of the corporate spam emails I see every day reduced to RSS feeds. Most of the time I simply delete them, but the time it takes to validate that this email is not an important one is wasteful.

    RSS is a good way of publishing 'nice to have' information. Email is a better way of publishing 'must read' information. I feel that striking that balance within the enterprise is the key to making effective use of RSS.

  4. James,
    I very much agree with the summary comment from your 2005 paper on email. If I could put it another way, you have summarized the two alternatives to reducing email overload; Change the behavior of the recipient or change the behavior of the sender. After thinking this through for the past couple of years and trying various techniques, I have arrived in the Change the Sender camp. But I think doing so will require a combination of carrots and sticks. Email etiquette is a carrott that can improve the skills of the sender. And a partner and I have built an app that applies postage to internal email, which can serve as the stick.
    I am sure the resistance will be high, as people feel that their free email is threatened. But the benefits of an entire team, department, line of business or enterprise all seeing a change in email habits will be great.
    Bob Hiss.


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