[ Question ]

Could we solve this email mess if we all moved to paid emails?

by jacobjacob 2mo11th Aug 201920 comments

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Have you ever…

  • Sent an email to someone in EA and not heard back for many weeks (or more)?
  • Avoided sending an email to someone because you wanted to spare their attention, despite thinking there was a fair chance they’d be genuinely interested?
  • Wanted some way to signal that you actually cared more than usual about this email, but without having to burn social capital (such as by saying “urgent” or “please read”)?
  • Had to ignore an email because, even though it might have been interesting, figuring that out would simply have been too effortful?

I think that 1) problems like these are prevalent, 2) they have pretty bad consequences, and 3) they could be partly solved by using services where you can pay to send someone an email (payment is usually conditional on reply).

I’m considering running a coordination campaign to move the community to using paid emails (in addition to their ordinary inbox), but before launching that unilaterally I want more confidence it is a good idea, hence I'm asking this question.

Background

Email seems broken. This is not that surprising: your email is basically a to-do list where other people (and companies) can add items for free, without asking; and where you’re the only one who can remove them. We should do something about this.

More broadly, the attention economy seems broken. Recognising this, many EAs use various software tools to protect themselves from apps that are engineered to be addictive. This helps at an individual level, but it doesn’t help solve the collective action problem of how to allocate our attention as a community. We should do something about this.

Costly signalling and avoiding information asymmetries

An “information asymmetry” is situation where someone has true information which they are unable to communicate. For example, suppose 10 economists are trying to influence government policy on issue X, and one of them actually, really knows what the most effective thing is. Yet, they might not be able to communicate this to the decision-makers, since the remaining 9 have degrees from equally prestigious institutions and arguments that sound equally rigorous to someone without formal training in economics. Information asymmetries are a key mechanism that generate bad equilibria.

When it comes to email, this might look as follows: Lots of people write to senior researchers asking for feedback on papers or ideas, yet they’re mostly crackpots or uninteresting, so most stuff is not worth reading. A promising young researcher without many connections would want their feedback (and the senior researcher would want to give it!), but it simply takes too much effort to figure out that the paper is promising, so it never gets read. In fact, expecting this, the junior researcher might not even send it in the first place

This could be avoided if people who genuinely believed their stuff was important could pay some money as a costly signal of this fact. Actual crackpots could of course also pay up, but 1) they might be less likely to, and 2) the payment would offset some of the cost of the recipient figuring out whether the email is important or not.

How the signalling problem is currently solved, and why that’s bad

Currently, the signalling problem is solved by things like:

  • Spending lots of effort crafting interesting-sounding intros which signal that the thing is worth reading, instead of just getting to the point
  • Burning social capital -- adding tags like “[Urgent]” or “[Important]” to the subject line

This is bad, because:

1) It’s a slippery slope to a really bad equilibrium. I’ve gotten emails with titles like “Jacob, is everything alright between us?” because I didn’t e.g. buy a water bottle from some company. This is what we should expect when companies fight for my attention without any way to just directly pay for it. Even within the EA community, if our only way of allocating importance is by drawing upon very serious vocabulary, we’ll create an incentive for exaggeration, differentially favouring those less scrupulous about this practice, and chip away at our ability to use shared-cues-of-importance when it really matters.

2) The main thing protecting us from this inside a smaller community is that people want to preserve their reputations. But if you’re unsure how important your thing is, and mislabeling it means potentially crying-wolf and risking your reputation, this usually makes it more worth it to just avoid the tag. Which means that we lose out on all those times when your thing actually was important and using the tag would have communicated that.

3) It puts the recipient between a rock and a hard place, and they’re not being compensated for it. If you mark something as “[Urgent]” that actually is urgent, and the person responds and does what you want, you’ve still presented them with the choice between sacrificing some ability to freely prioritise their tasks, and sacrificing some part of the quality of your relationship. There should be some easy way for you to compensate them for that.

4) It’s way too coarse-grained. There’s not really any way of saying:

“This is kinda important, but not that urgent, though it would probably be good if you read it at some point, though that depends on what else is on your plate”

apart from writing exactly that -- but then you’re making a complicated cognitive demand, which has already burnt lots of attention for the recipient.

Brief FAQ

What if replacing email with paid emails puts us in another equilibrium that’s bad for unexpected reasons?

At the moment, it doesn’t seem feasible for us to use this to replace email. There isn’t even software available for doing that completely. Rather, people would consent to receiving paid messages (for example via earn.com, see below) in addition to having their regular inbox.

What if people don’t have enough money?

As mentioned above, sending standard emails are still an option. Yet this becomes a problem in the world where we move to the equilibrium where a standard email is taken to signal “I didn’t pay for this, so it’s not that important”. Then I can imagine grants for “email costs” being a thing, or that the benefits of the new equilibrium outweigh this cost, or that they don’t. I’m uncertain.

Wouldn’t this waste a lot of money?

Not really, assuming that the people who you send money to are at least as effective at spending it as you are, which seems likely if this gets used within the EA community.

If this is basically right: then what do we do?

Earn.com is a site which offers paid emails. For example, you can pay to message me at earn.com/jacobjacob/

If this seems like something that could solve the current email mess, we should coordinate to get a critical mass of the community to sign-up, and make their profile url:s available. (Compare this to how we’ve previously started using things reciprocity.io and Calendly.)

I’d be happy to coordinate such a campaign, but I don’t want to do it until I’m more confident it would be a good thing. I hope to use this questions to help figure that out.

(For the record, I have no relation to earn.com and would not benefit personally by others joining, beyond the obvious positive effects on the community. They simply seem like the best available option for doing this. They have a pretty solid team, and are used by some very senior VCs like Marc Andreessen and Keith Rabois.)

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3 Answers

Based on the title of this I felt initially skeptical, but after reading the full article I updated towards this being an interesting thing to try.

A few thoughts/concerns:

  • I seem to be unusual in that I don't find email management particularly difficult. I unsubscribe from all marketing emails immediately, and have a strict inbox zero policy which means any emails that require an action or time-consuming response are moved to my task manager, where they can be easily prioritized. I think it's rare that I accidentally miss an email I would have otherwise responded to; if I don't respond it's usually because I actively deprioritized it. The prioritization process itself doesn't feel too taxing for me.
  • Thinking about the kind of emails I get, and which ones I think are worth responding to vs which ones I predict would choose to pay for a response, I find it hard to imagine that these overlap, so I'm not sure if it would be a helpful signal. I'd change my mind on this if I tried it and it turned out they did generally overlap.
  • If imagine myself wanting to send a busy person an email and considering using a paid email, I immediately worry about making them feel obliged to respond even if they don't want to, or tempting them to respond even if it isn't a good use of their time, etc. Because of this, I'm not sure it solves the social capital issue of using words like 'urgent' or 'important'.
  • I also share Khorton's concern about it looking weird to people outside of EA and having reputational effects.

I wonder whether educating and encouraging good email hygiene could be an easier solution (at least initially). Some email hygiene tips:

  • Think really hard about what you want to achieve by emailing someone. Can you achieve it another way and preserve their attention? If not, make it as easy as possible for the recipient to give you what you need.
  • Ask specific questions rather than open-ended questions.
  • Use bullets and whitespace.
  • Put in the extra time it takes to keep it brief.
  • Be polite and friendly, but get to the point. It's usually ok to skip 'Hope this finds you well! How was your weekend?' etc.
  • Provide any necessary context as clearly and succinctly as possible (including introducing yourself or reminding them who you are or what the project is and why you are asking them specifically - remember it won't be as fresh in their mind as it is in yours!)
  • Attach or link to any necessary files, documents, or resources.
  • Use bold text to draw the eye to important parts (e.g. due dates or actions).
  • If it's a short message to broadcast some info, put it in the subject followed by 'EOM' (end of message) so people know they don't need to open the email (also consider 'NNTR' (no need to reply)).
  • If asking someone to review a document, tell them which sections you most want them to focus on, and whether you are looking for minor corrections like typos or rephrasing, ideas for new points/sections, or are open to feedback that could result in needing to rewrite the whole thing.
  • If asking for career advice, include your CV, and any thinking you've done so far. Include whether you are looking for connections (and if so, what kind), guidance, job opportunities, or something else.
  • Unsubscribe from all marketing or irrelevant emails. Archive anything that doesn't require action. Move anything that does into a task manager. Keep inbox zero.

I'm hesitant about this because I think it would be costly to implement, in terms of time and attention, and because I think it's very weird and could negatively affect our reputation.

Putting that to one side, I'm trying to think through what the social norms would be around this for a few examples:

-If I emailed 80,000 Hours with a career question and £20, should I expect them to definitely respond? Does this lead to a market for private career coaching? On the other hand, what if I sent them a £500 email and they never responded - couldn't I be rightfully upset?

-If Julia Wise were prioritising paid emails in her role regarding community health, is she more likely to miss emails from people on the periphery of EA or who have less money, who are potentially very vulnerable?

-Would this system represent a power shift toward people with more money, because they can more easily pay large amounts?

I like the post and comments, and exploring this idea-cluster in general; thanks for sharing. I have other ideas I think would be useful in that idea-space, but I'm not sure this one would be useful for me as an email-receiver. I currently have no problem reading all my emails, and receive very few undesirable emails, and if someone send me a long task by email, I have no problem declining or asking for money (and do work as a contractant through PayPal or UpWork). I feel this is like this for most people except a few public figures. As an email-sender, I would like if people that are unreachable by email had a price instead of a barrier (which acts as an infinite price); but I wouldn't use that feature often I think (maybe 1-10 times per year).