Why you should care

Because “You’ve got mail!” is now a constant ringing in our ears. 

Trying to make yourself understood? From the minds of OZY, the kings and queens of clear communication, comes Crossed Wires, a series of immodest solutions for all of your communicative problems.

Imagine opening your mailbox to a deluge. A dozen envelopes contain sheets of paper bearing a single word, like “Okay” or “Thanks!” A dozen more contain one-line questions you must respond to. There’s even a 200-page document with a Post-it slapped on top: “FYI.”

This would never happen, of course, because snail mail is expensive. A single postage stamp is a pittance, but 100 of them a day would add up. Then there are all the transaction costs that go into a simple piece of mail: procuring stamps and envelopes, dropping them into mailboxes, waiting for the mail to arrive, once-a-day delivery. Together, these transaction costs constitute a pretty large barrier. When we look at our email inbox (11,573 unread and counting), we rather like the idea of a barrier. So let’s fix email — by charging a small fee per electronic missive. A penny should do the trick.

Email is one of those things that look free and seamless, but it imposes awful costs on its recipients. One article in the Harvard Business Review estimated that at the author’s company, each email cost 95 cents in labor — based on average typing speed, reading speed, response rate, volume of email. You could, of course, not read or respond to your email, but then you’d suffer the potential psychic consequences: guilt, anxiety, etc. One study even found a link between after-hours email and emotional exhaustion. We suggest you email it to your colleagues, but maybe not after hours.

Some businesses have tried a version of penny-for-an-email: Facebook, for instance, charged a buck to message non-friends, while LinkedIn slaps on a hefty subscription fee to access InMails. Good on them. But that hasn’t helped our inboxes. Radicati Group estimates 205 billion emails were sent and received each day in 2015; if everyone in the world had access to email (they do not), that’d be 30 emails a person. Companies like Slack, of course, prey on email’s weaknesses — Slack advertises that it reduces email by almost half — but it’s not going away anytime soon. We don’t want it to. We just want to help vet out the dreck in our inboxes. So much dreck!

To be sure, some will vociferate that email is open and allows all classes to communicate, and it should remain that way. Others will rightly worry that linking bank accounts or credit cards to email will amplify security concerns. While paying for email would take a hatchet to spam, we’ll have created a huge incentive for hackers to expose security flaws and take over payment information, argues Justin Rao, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. “It would be worse,” Rao says.

But right now, email has a problem. It is not an open channel because it is clogged with detritus. It consumes our time without prioritizing importance or minimizing quantity. Money doesn’t solve everything, but putting a value on our time is necessary to keep the service useful. “You’ve got mail!” should not be a constant ringing in our ears.

Please don’t email me your comments. But post your thoughts below!

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OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.