This week’s blog post is a vlog! Last week I was in conversation with Dr Amanda Taylor-Beswick from Queen’s University, Belfast, about the ethical aspects of doing research digitally in the pandemic. Here it is; I hope you find it interesting and useful.
The number of emails these days is problematic for many people, particularly professionals. Efforts are being made to reduce the volume of email – and this is a good thing, in principle. Yet some of the methods people are choosing don’t seem to me to be solving the problem.
My perception of this is particularly acute because I’m an indie. If you work for an organisation that decides everyone will use Trello for project management, or your department decides to use a WhatsApp group for internal admin, then fair enough. You know what you have to do and everyone you work with is doing the same thing. But recently five separate clients have asked me to use Slack, Trello, Basecamp, SharePoint, and a WhatsApp group, for project management or discussions or both. Also, I have missed work offered to me via Facebook Messenger, and I rather think a prospective client has fallen out with me as a result which is a very unfortunate outcome from my point of view. I’m not signed up to Messenger (never did think it was a good idea to give FB my phone number) so I don’t always get messages people send me on there. Other clients have approached me via DMs on Twitter, which are slightly more reliable but again I don’t always get the notifications so I don’t always pick up the messages. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens on Instagram.
There are several issues here. Let’s start with social media. Not everyone is on Facebook or WhatsApp. Even if someone appears on a platform you use, they may not use it in the same way as you. If you send someone a private message for the first time, and you don’t hear back as quickly as you expect, let them know in a public space that a message is waiting for their attention. And generally I would advise not using these systems for professional messages. These messages are not searchable, and they cannot be backed up except through a saved screenshot which is also not searchable. They are certainly not confidential; I know email, too, can be hacked, but if you use appropriate security it’s more secure than web-based messages. Also, I doubt that agreements made via social media – especially in private messages – are legally binding; or at least, to my knowledge, that hasn’t been tested.
Then there are the web-based programs and apps such as Trello, Slack, Basecamp and Sharepoint. Several of these are designed on the basis that one person = one login = one location. And the login is usually your email address. These systems are designed for organisations, not for indies. Recently I had a Basecamp account with one organisation and then needed to use my email for a different account with a different organisation – but the web-based system couldn’t provide that option. I spent best part of a day working with the second organisation’s IT department to find a way to resolve this problem. And of course, for me, that time is unpaid, which makes it even more galling.
All these systems are intended to reduce the volume of work in general and emails in particular. In my experience they don’t; they increase the volume of work and of emails. Learning a new system takes time and it’s not always easy. I now get email notifications from several of these systems, sometimes in multiples per day, clogging up my inbox. I can turn off notifications but then I have to remember to log in everywhere regularly or I miss important work messages. Logging in to several systems several times a week = more work.
However, it is true that the volume of email has become a problem. These days I get around 50-250 emails per day; I know some people get many more. A lot of these are junk or spam and swiftly deleted, but the rest take time to answer. There are various methods we can use to help manage emails, such as:
- Inbox zero. This is not about having no emails in your inbox, it’s about managing your emails so effectively that they don’t take up space in your head. Implementing some or all of the suggestions below can help you to achieve this.
- Those e-newsletters that induce only guilt because you never actually read them? Unsubscribe. The annoying spam that keeps on coming? Unsubscribe. Now that the EU has instituted GDPR, unsubscribing actually means something.
- Check email at specific times, say once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The rest of the time, turn off email notifications so you can concentrate on work.
- When you read an email, if possible deal with it straight away. If that’s not possible, tag it and make a note on your to-do list or equivalent to make sure it doesn’t get forgotten.
- Use folders to sort emails into ‘Read’, ‘Answer’, ‘Keep’ or suchlike categories. You can also use folders for emails related to specific projects.
- Delete everything you don’t need (though be sure it definitely is surplus to requirements).
- Don’t reply to any email unless a reply is truly necessary. If you’re cc’ed so you know what’s going on, do you really need to add to the discussion?
As this last point suggests, it helps to take care when you’re writing emails, too. Don’t write an email unless it’s really necessary, and when you do write, try to be as succinct as possible. I see, and I appreciate, a tendency to leave out the courtesies, such as ‘I hope you’re well’ (which is horribly insensitive if the person you’re emailing has a chronic health condition, as a lot of us do) and ‘best wishes/kind regards’. Email, used properly, is more like a conversation, with direct exchanges.
It seems to me that email has huge advantages over other systems. For example:
- You can work offline (as I often do – I’m writing this post on a train) including during power cuts, at least for as long as your battery lasts.
- Email is searchable. I recently had an email from someone I couldn’t remember but who evidently knew me quite well. I found the last email she’d sent me – 10 years ago! – which reminded me that we had worked together on a project, and meant I could send her a suitable response.
- You can tag emails with different colours for different actions.
- Emails can be filed by topic or project.
- Email is easy to back up and preserve.
- Agreements made by email have legal standing as contracts.
So, for all its downsides, I would like to stick to using email. But am I a dinosaur? Or am I missing something crucial? And what do you think about professional communication in 2019? Let me know in the comments.
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This week’s blog is a video. It’s a keynote I gave last month at a doctoral conference at the University of Birmingham. The conference organisers asked me to cover three topics: my career as an independent researcher, creative research methods in practice, and advice for anyone considering becoming an independent researcher.
The video was created and published by the Contemporary Philosophy of Technology research group at the University of Birmingham. You might want to get a cuppa… Enjoy!
I inadvertently caused a minor Twitterstorm last week, and am considering what I can learn from this.
I spotted a tweet from @exerciseworks reporting some research. It said “One in 12 deaths could be prevented with 30 minutes of exercise five times a week” (originally tweeted by @exerciseworks on 22 Sept, retweeted on the morning of 10 October). The tweet also included this link but I didn’t click through, I just responded directly to the content of the tweet.
Here’s their tweet and my reply:
The @exerciseworks account replied saying it wasn’t their headline. This was true; the article is in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) which should know better. And so should I: in retrospect, I should have checked the link, and overtly aimed my comment at the BMJ as well.
Then @exerciseworks blocked me on Twitter. Perhaps they felt I might damage their brand, or they just didn’t like the cut of my jib. It is of course their right to choose who to engage with on Twitter, though I’m a little disappointed that they weren’t up for debate.
I was surprised how many people picked up the tweet and retweeted it, sometimes with comment, such as this:
which was ‘liked’ by the BMJ itself – presumably they are up for debate; I would certainly hope so. (It also led me to check out @AdamMeakins, a straight-talking sports physiotherapist who I was pleased to be bracketed with.)
Talking to people about this, the most common reaction was to describe @exerciseworks as a snowflake or similar, and say they should get over themselves. This is arguable, of course, though I think it is important to remember that we never know what – sometimes we don’t know who – is behind a Twitter account. Even with individual accounts where people disclose personal information, we should not assume that the struggles someone discloses are all the struggles they face. And with corporate or other collective accounts, we should remember that there is an individual person reading and responding to tweets, and that person has their own feelings and struggles.
Twitter is a fast-moving environment and it’s easy to make a point swiftly then move on. Being blocked has made me pause for thought, particularly as @exerciseworks is an account I’ve been following and interacting with for some time.
I stand by the point I made. It riles me when statistical research findings are reported as evidence that death is preventable. Yes, of course lives can be saved, and so death avoided at that particular time. Also, sensible life choices such as taking exercise are likely to help postpone death. But prevent death? No chance. To suggest that is inaccurate and therefore unethical. However, forgetting that there is an actual person behind each Twitter account is also unethical, so I’m going to try to take a little more time and care in future.
This blog post is part of a messy, asynchronous, stimulating conversation that I’m lucky enough to be part of, along with @debsnet and @nomynjb and @jennacondie and @cj13. The conversation was influenced by the man with the best Twitter name in the multiverse, @timbuckteeth, who started the #blimage process. The idea of that is to write a blog post inspired by an image, then challenge someone else to write a blog post inspired by a different image. I was challenged by @debsnet and I then challenged @nomynjb – but @debsnet was inspired by the spiderwebs image I’d picked for @nomynjb, so she wrote another blog post inspired by spiderwebs and incorporating that image. Then @nomynjb wrote her post, referencing @debsnet’s post, also incorporating that image, and asking, ‘Anyone want to blog about a spider’s web?’
The post by @debsnet is about ‘technology which connects’, and it’s also about disruption: breaking or bending rules. From making good use of accidents, to ‘colouring outside the lines’, @debsnet praises and celebrates the positive power of disruption. So does @nomynjb, though from a different angle. She traces the development of mass asynchronous communication from Gutenberg to today’s boundary-crossing multimedia, and suggests that people who are breaking the Gutenberg rules are the ones who help us all move forward.
This so resonated with me. I grew up in a wordy household: my father was an English teacher, we didn’t have a TV, and I lived in a world of conversation and storytelling. Disruptive use of language – puns, neologisms, etc – was encouraged. My mother taught me to read when I was three, mainly I think to equip me to amuse myself while she dealt with my newly arrived sister. Since then I have never been without a book on the go and often have half a dozen half-read: a literary novel, an escapist novel, short pieces of non-fiction, long non-fiction, poetry, and a research methods book, so I can pick up and read whichever suits my mood. I also started writing very young and have never stopped. I’m in love with text, and am a compulsive communicator. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I was an early adopter of blogging, starting in 2005, and I’ve been on Twitter since 2009; like @debsnet I find it helps me learn to be more concise. I was a bit more reluctant about Facebook and LinkedIn, but eventually got involved in 2010. I am on Pinterest but have never really got the hang of it, though I’m doing better with Instagram; I’m not a very visual person, but Instagram is helping me learn to see more beyond the oh-so-compelling text.
Many of my offline non-social-media friends and colleagues think I’m amazingly digitally skilled. I know this is not the case. I’ve never Tumblred or Flickred, I didn’t LiveJournal or MySpace, I don’t SnapChat or WhatsApp, and I know there are a hundred others I can’t even remember – if I ever heard of them in the first place.
In @debsnet’s post, she wrote about how she’s using and valuing Voxer. I’d never heard of Voxer, which evoked a familiar feeling of near-despair. Another one! I can’t keep up! Other people I know online are upping Periscope with enthusiasm. I want to join in with all this and I have loads of ideas for content but I struggle with the process. For example, I’ve been trying really hard with YouTube for over a year now, and I’m rubbish at making videos. I can see that if I spent several hours a week working on it, I would slowly improve, but I’m struggling to find the time or, perhaps more accurately, the motivation. As with writing, I enjoy the editing process, but find the first draft a chore. With writing, you only have to do one first draft, but with video, you (or, at least, I) have to do loads of them till you get one that’s good enough to edit. And it’s so complicated: you have to juggle light, and sound, and visuals, and appearance, and performance. Every time I play back something I’ve recorded, I can see what’s wrong with it, but I don’t have the skills to fix it quickly and effectively like I can fix clunky text, so I get frustrated. And no, I’m not being a perfectionist; if I show my videos to my friends, they say things like, ‘Why are you so wooden? You’re not like that on the mainstream media or when you speak at conferences,’ and I want to go and hide in a hole and cry.
I agree with @nomynjb that we need to break the Gutenberg rules of privileging unchangeable print and linear modes of communication. I have loads of ideas about how to do this. For example, I want to make and embed short videos and comic strips in my blogs, and I want to know how to do all this on my phone, on the move, as well as from my laptop at a desk. I long to embrace the new technologies, not still be struggling with the old ones, and – as @nomynjb put it – ‘access this new technology for its potential, not for its usefulness’. But I don’t have the skills and I can’t afford to pay other people to help me. I can’t even afford the software I want to use for comic strips.
For every iota of skill I acquire, a whole new online platform develops. I find this hugely frustrating! I want to be in the middle of the interwebs, connected to everything, because I can see, and hear, and almost feel and smell and taste, the opportunities and the fun and the creativity available to those who can use technology for its potential. I long to plunge in and disrupt and play. But, without the skills I need to move toward the centre, I’m stuck on the edge.
Then again, there’s still scope for positive disruptive practice on the edge of the web, and in text-based communication. Much of my last book showcased the work of people who bent the rules of research methods, and I’ve just co-written a paper on disruptive methodologies. So maybe it makes sense for me to let go of my longing for the technological playground and, instead, use technology for its usefulness and play to my textual strengths. Also, I suspect nobody, or very few people, can actually keep up with all the technological developments. So perhaps the answer for most of us is to practice positive disruption wherever we usefully can.