Email and the tragedy of the commons

The tragedy of the commons is a situation where multiple individuals behave rationally in their own self-interest and ultimately destroy a useful shared resource, even when it is perfectly clear that it is not in the best interests of the group as a whole for this to happen. So, if a ‘common’ can support grazing for 50 sheep and 5 people put 10 sheep each on it then all is well. However, if 1 person puts 11 sheep on the common, this starts an arms race where each individual then feels compelled to match this. Ultimately, the common is over-grazed and destroyed.

To handle this problem, we have invented regulators who are supposed to stop individual behaviour that threatens the good of the whole (although it didn’t work too well with the banks).

The analogy with email is striking. Email in the 1990s was a fantastically useful tool for supporting distributed working. It appeared to be a cheap and effective way of distributing information to lots of people. However, as it became universal, more and more information was distributed by email to the extent that, in many jobs, it has become impossible to manage the amount of electronic information received. Email is easy – adding one more recipient takes very little effort – and it stimulates responses – even if these are automatically generated responses saying that the receiver is out of the office. We have also placed the burden on the receiver to read their mail – all too often we are told when something hasn’t been done that we have received an email about this.

We have created a situation where a shared, incredibly useful resource, has been degraded to the extent that its value is now questionable in many situations.  Charging does not help – this might reduce spam but wouldn’t reduce the volume of email generated within an organisation. Social media (blogs, wikis, social networks) have the capability to improve things but the lack of standards, the image of these systems as ‘unprofessional’ and sometimes clunky interfaces don’t help.  Organisations really need to rethink their policies and approach to information dissemination and, instead of just relying on email, provide a range of mechanisms through which people can communicate and share information.

And maybe we also need organisational e-mail regulators to make sure that everyone complies with these policies.

2 thoughts on “Email and the tragedy of the commons

  • June 17, 2010 at 9:40 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments here Ian, but there are so many factors to take into consideration. Part of teh email deluge within companies is their necessity to “inform” their employees so they cannot be sued or that company policy has changed dramatically. These emails are proven not to be read by most employees hence this is a very useful too for the people at the top to use… “we told you about it.. We cannot be held responsible for you not reading things”. It is often within new contracts that you must read company emails!
    There is also a touch of the “Rise of Michael Rimmer” about infomration. For those that missed this film it consists of an manager of opinon polls canvasssing opinions to teh extent that he managed to wanglwe his way into parliament and eventually to be PM. Once he was PM he asked the public to vote on lots of innane issues and then when the backlash came he decided that he would make all the decisions. I mention this as there is a policy of overloading people with information so that the real information gets masked, just as the Govt will release key information at the times when there is a big story or the news will report on some foreign affair to hide the disasterous story happening in the UK.
    I actually think that things like Twitter and Facebook act as a safety valve to all of this but must concede that information overload makes us all blassez to the receipt of inportant information. Everyone has techniques by which they scan their emails and priorities what they will or will not read as a consequence.
    What I do like and would love to reintroduce is what many large IT companies have done in the past which is blocking internal emails forcing employees to actually talk to one another. The downside to that is to talk to one person is time consuming but to talk to twenty is almost impossible if you want to get on with things, whereas one email gets to 100’s of email boxes in a second.
    So the question back is how do you make a policy that limits and qualifies without forcing internal breakdown within a corporate structure that is built on electronic communication?


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