Software Lets Senders Assign Value to E-Mails
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Well, one thing you can't buy with that rebate check: a break - from too much information. This week on MORNING EDITION we're focusing on the kind of information overload that comes with emails. But let's say you had to pay to send an email. It's a good bet you'd send only messages that were truly important, and that's the idea of a company called Seriosity. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.
WENDY KAUFMAN: There are lots of solutions to email overload now being bandied about. Most are attempts to filter or prioritize stuff once it hits your mailbox. The company Seriosity believes the problem should be addressed at the source with the sender.
Mr. SIMON ROY (Seriosity): People tend to overuse what's free to them. And right now email is basically free.
KAUFMAN: At least free for the sender, says Simon Roy, Seriosity's chief executive. But what's free for the sender, he continues, imposes a sizeable burden on the recipient. Seriosity wants to make senders attach virtual money, known as Serios, to every email. And as co-founder Byron Reeves explains, the amount of money a sender has is limited.
Mr. BYRON REEVES (Seriosity): Get an allowance every week - you can't ask for more. So, you have a scarce resource, and you can use that resource to signal importance to the people you communicate with. But you can't send more than you've got. So you have to think a little bit about what - how you're going to use this signal, how much currency you're going to attach to information.
Mr. ROY: Let me start a new message to one of the people in the company, Jonathan.
KAUFMAN: Simon Roy sits at his keyboard and begins to type a message. He's using the email program Outlook but the screen has one additional column.
Mr. ROY: I will tab over to the Serio control, which gives me the ability to sign the Serios and I very quickly put in nine Serios. I get to see that Jonathan typically receives five. So this is a reasonably important message for him, and I will send the message as I normally would. That's it.
KAUFMAN: And here comes perhaps the most important part: Jonathan can immediately recognize the value his boss has assigned to the email, so he knows if it's something he needs to look at right away or something that that can safely be ignored. In this case Jonathan responds immediately, sending a reply loaded with Serios to convey that his answer is also very important.
But suppose you send your boss a marketing plan you've created? You think it's great and attach a large chunk of your weekly allowance. But when your boss replies, what you get is a curt thank you along with just two Serios.
Mr. REEVES: You certainly run the risk of getting feedback you might not like.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KAUFMAN: Seriosity's co-founder Reeves is a Stanford psychology professor. He says getting feedback from the recipient is very important. Seriosity's premise, which is backed by millions in venture capital, is that people within an organization will quickly learn what is and isn't valued by bosses and colleagues. That should make the number of irrelevant or dumb emails decline, and in theory at least make communication more focused and productive.
Will it work? We ask Thad Lion(ph), an IT manager at eBay's North Campus in San Jose.
Mr. THAD LION (IT Manager): I think everybody liked the idea of actually being able to log into a mailbox and actually having a separate column and quickly being able to view, you know, things that were weighted a little bit higher, all right? I know I got that way.
KAUFMAN: Lion was part of a small test that experimented with an early version of Seriosity's software.
Mr. LION: I think that absolutely that had potential for certain segments within eBay to work very well.
KAUFMAN: Seriosity's product is by no means the only approach eBay is considering. But like so many companies, it has to do something. The cost of information overload and the interruptions that go along with it are staggering. Chip maker Intel, for example, puts their own cost at a billion dollars a year. Once again, Seriosity's Simon Roy.
Mr. ROY: We don't see the problem, you know, lessening. If anything it's going to get worse as more and more people come online and they're connected, you know, for longer periods.
KAUFMAN: Some of the biggest technology firms in the country are now banding together to fight information overload. Just last week Intel, Google, IBM, Microsoft and others formed a non-profit group to study the problem, publicize it and come up with new solutions.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And ever hit send and wished you hadn't? Share your story; we'll post some of them at NPR.org.