Don't Tell Me Your Email Address

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

An interesting generational moment (one of many, to be entirely honest) at BookCamp Toronto yesterday. At the end of one session, the panel made a plea for all concerned to share any ideas, practices, or projects that might overlap with (or contribute to) the initiative that the team had spend the last 50 minutes outlining. A member of the audience asked for the resource at which this sharing would take place.

One of the panel members pointed to the email address that he had pinned to the wall about fifteen minutes earlier.

There was an awkward collective silence -- one of those "ah, what?" moments -- as everyone realized that, yes, that email address (an email address) was going to be the conduit for idea-sharing and contact management for the project.

Email is a terrible media for this kind of thing, and to this crowd -- a significant proportion of which had their Twitter usernames pinned to their chests through the day -- it carried a heavy implicit message. Email is not only a closed hatch, behind which activity is invisible, but it also suggests a very distinct model of information management. By emailing your information or ideas to someone, you are putting yourself at their disposal. It's a private communication vessel -- entirely inappropriate to a public plea for information sharing, and implicitly antithetical to an open source model of participatory innovation. And it's completely dependent on the recipient's ability to efficiently manage their inflow of information -- not something that most people are good at.

Twitter, to pick only the most obvious contrast, may allow for private 'direct messaging', but it is a public medium. The default means of a conversation -- the @ reply syntax -- makes the dialogue visible for all to see.

Positioning your email address as a the place at which I should post my ideas or contact details requires that I trust you to efficiently do the following things:

  1. Receive and record my information.
  2. Understand it completely, not only within the terms which I used to express it, but in all the possible implications it might carry for other people coming from a complete diversity of backgrounds.
  3. Distribute it to the most suitable members of the community.
  4. Do all of the above in a timeframe that is most appropriate to my ideas and best rewards my sense of engagement with the project.
  5. Warehouse all of that information in such a way that you can repeat steps 1-4 if someone new comes to the table later whose ideas and identity might have a fruitful relationship to my own.

In short, you're asking me to bet on your superhuman efficiency to understand information in all its possible permutations and maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of the network. But for most people of my generation that just isn't how we're used to interacting with the world. We like the instant public archiving of the internet (including the kudos and bragging rights that that provides), and the distributed networking that exposure to the crowd allows. In short, we'd rather rely on a network to do the things that a network does well.

I can understand that the team at this presentation might not yet have had time to put together a robust software solution (a forum? wiki?) at which open participation might take place. But a Twitter username or hashtag would have been better -- much better -- than someone's email address. Particularly when the topic was technological innovation. You guys know that email is 40 years old, right?