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> The Rule of Correspondence
  How Many Acknowledgments?

The Rule of Correspondence

I have a thought about email I'd like to present. It's one of those thoughts that keeps occurring to me, which I figure means it's a good thing. It's also something that seems obvious but that I've never heard anyone else state, which makes it interesting to me as a potential good yet non-strident meme. And, finally, it's something that I've explained enough times that I've got it pretty well formulated. So here goes.

Suppose you've just been reminded of a friend you haven't corresponded with in a while. You send ver email to make sure the address is still working, and ve replies; you write at length, to tell ver what's been going on in your life in the past months or years, and ve replies at length; then, perhaps after another email or two, you find that neither of you has anything else to say, and the exchange comes to an end.

The whole process is quite natural, and yet, it has the seemingly unnatural effect of making it hard to maintain correspondence via email. Each individual exchange always comes to an end, and it always takes a bit of a push to get the next one started.

Now, one day, when I'd been thinking about this effect, I happened to receive an email containing a familiar sight, an apology for a slow reply, and from the juxtaposition of the two came an idea: if the replies were slower, it would be easier to maintain correspondence! If each email took, say, a week to arrive, then it would take two weeks for me to receive a reply, and by then I'd almost certainly have new things to write about.

Is it a coincidence that people used to do so well at corresponding by mail back in the good old days when letters took more than two or three days to go across the country? I think not!

The question, then, is how to make the replies slower. One can imagine a technological solution, say, a server that forwards mail only after a fixed delay, or, better, that forwards mail probabilistically, so that it's not clear when a message was originally sent. Not all mail should be delayed, of course, so there would have to be some means of marking mail as correspondence … and so on.

Alternatively, one can imagine a client-side solution, say, a snooze button that would take a message in the inbox and hide it for a few days.

Part of the solution, though, has to be memetic. Everyone involved has to understand the benefit of slowness, otherwise the unapologetic slow replies would seem rude, and even the best technological solution would be seen as a nuisance. One can imagine, in fact, a completely memetic solution, say, a convention or rule of email correspondence that says that replies are supposed to be slow, that one should always wait a few days before sending a reply.

Right now, if I wait a few days before sending a reply, without even wanting to I tend to rationalize, and decide that since I'm not replying promptly, I must not be excited about replying, must not like the other person much. So perhaps having a technological component to the solution would help. On the other hand, perhaps if the rule of correspondence were solidly established, I'd rationalize differently, and decide that I'm replying slowly because that's just the way one corresponds by email.

So, anyway, that's my thought about email, that we should adopt the rule of correspondence as a useful meme. Now, as usual, I'll end the essay with a few related thoughts.

Speaking of apologies, it seems to me that apologies for slow replies are almost always uncalled for. If I'm writing to someone or some company on a matter of business, sure, I can reasonably expect a prompt reply, but most of the time it should be understood that the possibility of slow replies is part of the nature of email. In particular, I don't expect a prompt reply if I'm writing to someone I don't know all that well, who for all I know may only check vis email once a week,

Now, here's another thing I've noticed. Email is not only a bit too fast for correspondence, it's also a bit too slow for interaction. My favorite example is trying to decide where to go for lunch. It's relatively easy to do in person, over the phone, or in a chat room, but by email it's a pain, it requires too many back-and-forth exchanges. Putting the two points together, we can say that as the response time is reduced, a means of communication goes from being good for correspondence, to being like email, then to being good for interaction … a perfect example of the idea that quantitative can be qualitative.

Finally, as I was writing I thought of another situation where slow replies occur: space travel. It takes light on the order of minutes to travel to other planets, and on the order of years to travel to even the nearest stars. We've never actually had a manned mission travel so far—it takes light only a second or so to travel to the moon—but perhaps there are still lessons to be learned from how we communicate with robot craft, or from science fiction. For example, the crew of a ship might report back daily at a fixed time; the same principle could be applied to email correspondence, by agreeing to send a message, say, every Monday, or the first of every month.


  See Also

  Antiviral Memes
  Memetic Engineering
  Notes on the History Block

@ April (2001)