Email Microtasks

Imagine you’re doing that thing we all do where we rather mindlessly scroll through feeds. Twitter feeds, Instagram feeds, Facebook feeds. Only now, sprinkled in there, are little jobs to do. Clive Thompson for WIRED:

The researchers created an AI app that looked through documents you were writing in Microsoft Word. It extracted simple editing tasks, like making a sentence less wordy. Then, using a Chrome plug-in, the software would slot these jobs into an item in your feed, one every 2,000 pixels. The researchers gave the tool to a test group, who began duly doing the little work tasks, a few each day, when they saw them while scrolling through Facebook. Every time they finished one, the AI would automatically insert it back into the proper Word file.

“Microproductivity”, they say.

As I was reading the article, it seemed to me email would be the perfect fit for this kind of trickery. Low and behold:

Email is already “just a bunch of microtasks,” as Rob Howard, Microsoft’s general manager for Office 365, tells me. The company has just made it explicit and tethered those tasks to your macro work.

But they were kinda talking about how these Word documents that need work on them could generate emails (rather than be injected into a Facebook feed) that request the little job to be done instead. I was thinking about it the other way, what if you’re browsing Facebook and have to quick deal with an email in your inbox before you continue?

Submission & Rejection

Chris Monks is McSweeney’s editor. Over on Vulture, he goes into his email load for article submissions. 200-300 submissions a week, which he reads and responds to every one of them within a week. Hence his rejection emails are basically one liners like

This doesn’t fail to amuse, but I’m afraid I’m going to pass. Thanks for the look, though. Hope you’ll keep trying.

To which he gets responses like “pansies”.

The correct answer?

Being a jerk works against your own interest, because in all likelihood, an editor will no longer consider your work for their site. There are tons of other writers who are able to come to terms with a “no” and carry on with their writing lives. An editor will continue to focus their attention on those folks and leave you and your jerky wallowing by the wayside (i.e., the spam box). So, the safest choice is to put down the can of gas and box of matches and let the bridge stand by not replying to a rejection altogether.

You wouldn’t have read the email.

That is one big strike against email. Despite how effective email is on so many fronts, it has this weird characteristic where any given email just might not be read. While that’s obvious for something like a marketing email, even strong-social-contract emails like an email from a friend or boss have some strange wiggle room. Oh, I must have missed that email is somehow an acceptable response if asked about a particular email.

Illegal Email After Hours

There was a bill introduced into New York City council this year (the “Right to Disconnect” Bill) that would make it illegal not to send email after hours, but to require employees to respond do it after hours.

“There is no line in the sand that separates the normal work hours from personal time because of technology,” Espinal told Moneyish following the City Council hearing Thursday morning. “We live with an always-on mentality because we believe that that’s what’s expected from us from our job. That can lead to exploitation of workers. Technology has aggressively advanced over the past 15 years with email and smartphone, but regulations and laws haven’t caught up with it.”

I don’t even know what to think about that. I’m just not caught up enough with this kind of politics. You can already force salaried employees to work basically unlimited hours already right? So that seems like a bigger fish to fry than something specifically email related. But maybe it’s useful for individual cities like this to set precedents? France already has a law like this, so there is international precedent.

Fighting against the “always on” mentality seems like a good goal, but apparently it’s a tricky line to walk, as it can also cause harm of a certain type:

Not checking work emails after hours may sound like a welcome relief from the 24/7 work culture where managers expect their subordinates to be hooked up to their smartphone at all hours, but banning employees altogether from email during certain hours can backfire, new research suggests.

Anxiety-prone workers who aren’t allowed to access work email on weekends and after hours could experience a decline in their well-being, a recent study from the University of Sussex published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found.

Some part of me thinks employees can take matters like this into their own hands and just not respond to emails (or communication of any kind) during agreed upon off-hours. But another part of me must admit that’s a bit naive, as many employers will take whatever they can legally get from workers and the only thing capable of stopping it is legislation.

Inbox When Ready

For myself, I’m a little skeptical of “just hide it from myself” to solve addiction issues. I would have put the Oreos on high shelf and lost 50lbs a long time ago if that worked. But I think there is some evidence that it does work for some personalities.

This browser extension is in that category.

It’s just some fancy front-end codin’ that literally hides the inbox part of your Gmail inbox for timed intervals.

I like how it doesn’t prevent you from sending email, just looking at your inbox. I too like thinking of these things as distinctly different and worthy of treating differently. I like the idea that hand-writing an outgoing email to someone is probably a lot bigger deal at pushing yourself forward in the world than the rat race of responding to email after email in your inbox.

Out of Pocket


Scott is right, it’s perfect because nobody knows what it means and nobody wants to sound dumb asking, so nobody does and we can all just move forward.

If you were forced to define “out of pocket”, it probably essentially mean “whatever I was just gone and not responding to stuff for a while but I literally don’t want to discuss why/what/where/when so let’s get on with it.”

I don’t know who is saying email is dead but…

There is no source quoted here, so massive grain of salt. But even with regular levels of observation of human beings in your life, I think this feels about right.

Email. Everybody has it. Everybody engages with it. Particularly emails from one person to one person.