On Friday, I moderated a fun panel at the Future of Web Apps conference in Miami (see photo above). The basic premise was to try to come up with a compelling web app in 40 minutes. There were a lot of good ideas, but the best ones centered around communications and how to use technology to get around the frustrations of e-mail and phone calls. It was clear that the panelists think these communication modes that we rely on every day may very well be in the process of breaking down. (CNet’s Caroline McCarthy, who was covering the conference, notes this as well).
A lot of the ideas were about getting around current communications bottlenecks. Leah Culver of Pownce came up with a white pages service that uses SMS text messages to look up phone numbers. Blaine Cook of Twitter suggested creating a call-back service that would, in effect, allow you call companies and put them on hold until a human answered. In other words, you would specify what department you want to speak with at a company, and the software would call and go through the phone tree, and digitally push all the right buttons until it got to a human operator, at which point it would ring your phone. I thought this was brilliant. Update: A service called Bringo actually does exactly this; we covered it last May.
But the app we ended up spending the most time brainstorming was one that Digg’s Kevin Rose dreamed up to help him manage his e-mail. He can’t keep up with it all, and wanted to come up with a way to stop offending people who he never gets back to by sharing some of his e-mail data with them. The concept was a site that keeps stats on your e-mail usage that your friends can check to see how far behind you are in responding to e-mails in general. (“It’s not you, it’s me”).
The stats would show your friends things like how many e-mails you got today, how many you’ve responded to, average response times, etc. When you look at the site, you’d get a deeper view, including alerts on who you are responding to and who you are not (but should be) based on your past e-mail behavior. The way it would know how to prioritize your e-mail would be to figure out your social network based on who you email a lot (similar to what Xobni does for Outlook). It would create alerts like: “Email Mom!” We ended up calling the app Mail Model, per Matt Mullenweg’s suggestion (other name suggestions were Mailr, which is already taken, Mail Stats, and Don’tBeAnEmailJerk.com).
I am not convinced this would actually be a viable service. If I think you are a jerk for not responding to my emails, getting a notice that I am No. 300 in your queue is not going to make me feel any better about you. But I thought the panel was instructive because it points to a problem that is starting to effect everyone, not just Kevin Rose. It’s not just that people are having a hard time keeping up with email. It is that email is having a hard time keeping up with us and our insatiable need for constant communication. If an e-mail falls below the fold, which in my case on Gmail is the last 50 e-mails, it is pretty much lost. And anything more than 48 hours old is a dead conversation.
Why doesn’t email work anymore, and what can be done to fix it?
(Photo via White African)