I'm quite jealous of Dana Boyd, who is a renowned researcher on social media, particularly its use among adolescents. Recently she announced her annual e-mail sabbatical. Here is the basic idea. She works "obscene hours"--travelling globally, researching, writing, presenting. To keep that up, she rightly argues, she needs a total break, one in which nothing is building up in her inbox. So for about a month starting in early December, she sets her e-mail so that all incoming messages are automatically and totally deleted. Only her mother can reach her. If someone wants to reach her, he or she will have to resend the message. (Read her full post on the announcement here. As a bonus, there is a link to a post on taking an e-mail sabbatical. Her blog, though not updated that often, is amazing.)
Imagine that: logging in and opening your e-mail. The inbox is empty. Imagine that ever. After a couple of days. A month! Sounds like a technological fantasy, some sort of virtual Xanadu. For a while I had managed to have my inbox empty at the end of the workday. It was a great feeling, but it was fleeting. It meant that e-mail drove my task list in some ways. Plus inevitably my phone would buzz as I drove home, and the inbox would have plenty of messages (most deletable) the next morning. I could have made Sisyphus my avatar.
Recently I gave myself a mini-hiatus. During the Thanksgiving break I went three-and-a-half days without checking my e-mail. It was very nice, and I didn't miss anything pressing. Still, the entire time I felt guilty and wondered what was in there. I couldn't really detach. Of course, I hadn't set up any sort of announcement and process such as Dana Boyd had. I'm not sure I ever could. I want to rationalize that my job really won't allow for it. There is some truth to that. But when I'm truly honest with myself, I also know that I would never be able to do it because of wanting that connection, that semblance of awareness and control, however illusory. I would wonder about what was being deleted and who might become angry. I used to joke when I would see people compulsively checking their phones that "I control the Blackberry; it doesn't control me." It used to be true. But last weekend our e-mail went down for about 18 hours and I started to have withdrawal symptoms. It was reminiscent of a time at my former school when we lost all our e-mail.
So on some level I really am quite jealous of Dana Boyd and admire her confidence in doing this. Most of us could never do such a thing because of temperament or demands or both. Yet it holds an important challenge for us to consider, even beyond e-mail questions. It raises some big, hairy questions about how we communicate with each other: the volume (in all meanings), the tone, the impulsiveness, the expectations. These questions become even more pointed when you consider platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Questions that could lead to dozens of posts, but no clear answers.
Meanwhile, I am trying to become much more conscious of my use of e-mail. I'm going to try to change some of own habits, such as not feeling I have to shift from whatever I'm working on to deal with e-mails right away. Also, I know how much I receive almost every day, and I know other people feel the same way. So I plan to be more thoughtful about how much I send. After all, I can't do much about what ends up in my inbox. But I can do my part to give others a bit of a break.