Online groups and email vs WordPress blogs for group collaboration

Can blogs save us from the pain of using email for collaboration? Yes, if you take the pain of changing away from email. An easier option is to use online groups with email to give you the advantages of blogs without the pain of changing from email.

In his article Is There Life After Email? Yes, And It’s Amazing, Scott Berkun makes the point that what annoys us most about communication technologies is how people use them. He says it’s “culture that defines these habits, not the tools”. He goes on to explain how at WordPress.com, this effect works the other way around: because there is a culture of engagement with actual work, the communication channels have a high signal-to-noise ratio.

At the same time, Scott Berkun accepts that each technology lends itself to particular kind of use, or abuse. As an example, he points to three fundamental disadvantages of email:

Email empowers the sender. They can put in your inbox whatever they like and as many times as they like (many receivers use filters and rules as countermeasures).
Email is a closed channel. There’s no way to see an e-mail if you are not on the ‘‘to’’ list, forcing work groups to err on the side of carpet bombing entire project teams, or companies. We all feel only a fraction of email has direct relevance to us as individuals. Email tends to bury people in FYI communication, messages unworthy of inboxes.
Email decays over time. If someone writes a great e-mail, an employee has to do something to preserve it. Otherwise it sits in an inbox, hidden from new employees. Over time, that organizational knowledge fades away.

He goes on to explains how the WordPress P2 theme used at WordPress.com encourages better communication.

The reader, not the sender, chooses what to read. At WordPress.com I picked which project blogs I wanted to follow and ignored the ones that had no value for me.
The reader chooses how often and in what form he or she wants to read. There are many different tools available for reading blog posts, including, if you really want it, email.
Blogs are easy to access, search, and reference. That great list of ideas you wrote a year ago won’t get buried and lost in people’s inboxes. As a blog post, it will always be available as a URL and can be searched and skimmed just like all the blogs on the Web you read every day.

I agree that email has bad problems. As he mentions, however, it is hard to move organizations – or even groups – away from using email. The “deeply engrained fatalism about alternatives” that he mentions is rooted in the unrivaled incumbency of email. Whatever you do with technology, the main challenge is changing organizational culture. Adding a change from such an ingrained technology as email is going to make things even harder.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. Online groups, such as those provided by Yahoo! Groups, Google Groups and OnlineGroups.net can be used to deliver the same advantages as blogs, without the pain of pulling people away from email.

I will explain how this works. Firstly though, I’ll clarify the problem that Scott is talking about by making two distinctions.

The first is between the message and the notification that the message exists. Both email and blogs have this. With email it is your inbox, which contains message headers. With blogs, it is your feed reader, if you use one, which also contains brief summaries of the blog post. No sender can force you to read their messages. They can, however clutter up your inbox or feed reader with unwanted headers. The difference is that with email you receive all the headers that are pushed at you. With blogs, you subscribe only to blogs whose headers you wish to receive.

The second distinction is better described in the list of disadvantages. With email you can only read the messages you are sent. With blogs, you can easily find and read blogs that you do not subscribe to.

With these distinctions in mind, I can only find two problems to discuss. The first is that with email you get all the notifications that are sent. The second is that you can get only the messages that are sent. I will invert these to restate Scott’s advantages of blogs over email, and explain how online groups used with email can deliver the same benefits.

The reader, not the sender, chooses which notifications to receive

With online groups, you only join the groups you are interested in. For each group you adjust your email settings to receive either one email per post, a digest or no email at all.

Like a feed-reader, online groups offer the additional benefit over email that the notifications received contain more metadata. Each email has a subject line prefix containing the name of the group it is in. This tells you more about the context of the email than email usually does. This makes it easy to review email from each group you are in separately, using simple inbox filters. By scanning the list of emails in each group you can quickly get a sense of the conversations that are occurring in that group and choose to follow some in detail or simply delete the emails. You will always be able to find them again, but I’ll get to that later.

The reader can search, read and reference anything he or she has permission to read

With OnlineGroups.net all group email is stored on your online groups site. There you can search and browse the groups you are in, and any other public groups on the site. Each message (with its associated files) has a url so you link to it from new messages or elsewhere.

Online groups have variable privacy settings and granular group membership so it is very easy to control who can see what.

Conclusion: Online groups deliver similar benefits to blogs without the pain of giving up email

Online groups can be used to solve the main problems that prevent email from being used for group collaboration. They allow people to manage their incoming stream of notifications, and to access the communication they are interested in. Online groups deliver these advantages without creating the problem of having to move people away from email. There is a change required but it is a small one.

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