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by Jay Fienberg

Email: what's was old is once again new

posted: Sep 17, 2003 3:56:33 PM

Last week, at work, I began the process of considering this question:

How can I approximate all of the best features of websites, discussion forums, wikis, blogs (including blogrolls, RSS, comments, trackback, and newsreaders) using mostly email (plus a handful of web pages, most of which are highly regulated and hard to update)? In other words, my domain of information tools at work, for the time being, is mostly limited, technically and culturally, to email.

So, it seemed like a great coincidence that Jon Udell's Infoworld article this week is on E-mail's special power (on which Jon also has some comments on his blog), and Ross Mayfield also has interesting comments in response in his Email Group-forming post.

Since last week, I have started writing what was supposed to be a policy but is sounding more like a manifesto on creating online interfaces for conversation / connectivity, vs. creating online interfaces for content. This is the thing, I think, that truly differentiates email: it is an interface for conversation / connectivity rather than an interface for content.

Whatever might be said about the value of conversations that do occur via blogs, the principal interfaces of blogs, being RSS newsreaders and web browsers, are interfaces for content and not interfaces for making connections / conversations between people, when compared with email. I have hinted at this before in my post on Email-type addressing for microcontent relationship management.

In my job, I am looking at "knowledge management" issues from these two sides: conversation / connection and content. I am looking to facilitate more conversation / connections, in general and around the content that already exists, and I also need to ensure that these new conversations /connections become part of content repositories.

Often, with existing systems, there is this large gap: the content system (i.e., the intranet) is generally highly regulated and official, and the conversation system (i.e., email) is generally ephemeral and un-open to larger participation through regular distribution (i.e., individuals emails are not network addressable the way web pages are).

What I think is quite funny, in considering all this, is that there is, in some sense, an answer to my question about using email alone: mailing lists that are archived and made browse-able and search-able. Doh! Jeez, them Internet people back then were pretty smart.

So, to add to the coincidences, I grabbed my copy of The Cluetrain Manifesto this morning and opened it right to the mailing lists section of the "Talk is Cheap" chapter. It's a good read if you have to again think about using email as a tool.

Anyway, it is not that I think mailing lists are sufficient or ideal. There is a gap between connectivity / conversation and content, and email, at best (which email is rarely at its best these days) has a good interface for making conversation-connections and for connecting conversations. But, in most every way that online conversations are content, email is quite limited compared with blogs, wikis, etc. So, my solution here at work is not simply mailing lists (and I still want to push for blogs, wikis, RSS, etc., as this all evolves.)

By the way, it is interesting to think about this gap between conversation and content from the design (and information architecture) for online community perspective, which I think is described well in Derek M. Powazek's book, Design for Community. In this book, he talks about webite designs that integrate content and conversation compared with website designs that segregate "community" away from content.

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