Slow Mail

[wikilike_img src=|align=thumb tcenter|url=|caption=an adjunct to the typical way i engage my email inbox? is “mail” even the right metaphor? do we need a new imaginary for networked, digital social communication of this kind?|width=500]

Recently I worked closely with Carolyn Strauss of Slow Lab on a proposal for a kind of messaging delivery architecture that had a deliberate aesthetic component, and derived from a metaphor of paced slowness. The idea of having a variety of mechanics for social communication is important, I think. Rather than just email, instant messaging, SMS, mobile mail, etc., we thought together about a channel of communication that was more deliberate and writerly. Something that was an adjunct to these fast-fast instant modes, we architected something that was a kind of gummed up transport that, besides being slower, created a sense of anticipation on the part of the recipient in that they would be given some kind of unfolding, growing, articulation visualization indicating that a message was on its way. It may take days or longer for the message to arrive, but you’d know it was on its way.

I say that this is an adjunct to email because it isn’t at all motivated by creating an alternative to email, but rather an additional communications transport to add to our quiver of existing transports.

So, I’m mentioning that to mention another kind of theory object style project, that I’m sure has a rich precedent in previous projects and if any one knows of such — please do let me know. It’s an adjunct email client that falls within the class of ambient style render layers for the channels of communication we receive. Even for a “datavore” like myself, the constant “bling” of new emails and the continuously up-ticking register of how many unread “articles” in my NetNewsWire trough of feeds can be debilitating at times. Rather than seeing these numbers grow and grow, I like thinking through some of the considerations that Paul Dourish in “Where the Action Is”, John Seeley Brown and Mark Weiser do in their essay “The Coming Age of Calm Technology”, or Hallnas and Redstrom in “Slow Technology — Designing for Reflection”.

How do we deal with data feeds when we’re not hungry for lots of data? In the coming pervasively and ubiquitously networked environment, with tons of sensors and a glut of data, how does one avoid data dyspepsia? Ambient modes of display, engagement and interaction is one way to consider how one would participate in richly instrumented pervasively and ubiquitously networked environments. Thinking of such environments as torrents of raw data is definitely not the way to think of a further evolution in the way we cohibitate with sensors, digital networked social communication, and such all.

Such an approach makes it quite intractable and unappealing and, frankly, is the one sure way to frame the problem so as to make it impossible to derive a solution. Who wants to be one’s own data traffic controller? No one — we just want to get on with the task of making meaning in our own individual worlds, not managing data.

My stomach gets in knots just thinking about what my email inbox might look like in the morning, and it’s not because I don’t like having lots of correspondence — it’s because email and the way it’s typically presented to me is just plain wrong. Electronic mail, metaphorically, borrows from postal mail, at least and there we almost never were in a situation to deal with 83 pieces of incoming a day, let alone incoming all throughout the course of a day. Lines and lines of subject messages becomes difficult to process and manage. I’d rather have another kind of visualization, something that was more palatable.

So, I’ve been thinking through this problem. I think email, in particular, is ripe for another set of metaphorical underpinnings. The Slow Mail project is one attempt, and this other project to create adjunct visualizers for incoming mail is another.’s a bit of a burn that “mail” is the built-in metaphor that undergirds both of these adjunct projects, but such is as it is.

One idea for this adjunct email client sort of thing is to create a floating window on the desktop, similar to the way an IM client appears, that gives some kind of sense of the “presence” of particular messages — there might only be a few of these in a stack, regardless of whether there are 87 new messages in the inbox. One of the indicators might reveal that there are messages from someone that you’ve had several recent exchanges with — an ongoing and active correspondence. Another might be an indicator in a cool, mellow color, that you have several messages from a discussion group. Yet another might indicate a message from someone especially tagged as significant, etc.

I’m thinking a simple step into this question would be to compose such a visualizer head-end in Flash, with a middle tier done in a language with which I have some fluency, like Java. It would really turn my server-side IMAP Mailbox into a database, walking the hierarchy to create some semantic inferences. Just simple stuff.

Why do I blog this? Because right now, as I write — I feel threatened by my email client. I’m afraid to start it up because starting it up, takes me somewhere else, off the track I am on in the morning. I wish I had just a simple indicator that was almost like a pleasant garden before stepping into the day’s data blitz.

This became SLOWMail, which received a Rhizome Commission for 2007. More here.

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One thought on “Slow Mail”

  1. Hi Julian, I’m journalist from Poland working on text about slow movement. I found the information about your Slow Mail project on SlowLab website. The idea sounds very interesting but I don’t really understand how it works. Since I couldn’t find your email I am leaving a comment, hoping that you could answer me this way. Best, Julia Pankow

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