Synthetic economy to tackle email overload

Today is First Monday (somehow), and so I got a pointer in the mail about the last issue of the online magazine by the same name. There’s an interesting story in there about email overload. The abstract is:

The productivity of information workers is jeopardized by too much e–mail. A proposed solution to e–mail overload is the creation of an economy that uses a scarce synthetic currency that senders can use to signal the importance of information and receivers can use to prioritize messages. A test of the virtual economy with corporate information workers showed that people in a large company used different amounts of the currency when sending e–mail messages, and that the amount of currency attached to messages produced statistically significant differences in how quickly receivers opened the messages. An analysis of the network of virtual currency trades between workers showed the different roles that participants played in the communication network, and showed that relationships defined by currency exchanges uncovered social networks that are not apparent in analyses that only examine the frequency, as opposed to the value of interactions.

In other words: what if people could “pay” to mark their email as important, using a scarce resource? This experiment is just an experiment, but it’s certainly a problem worth attacking.


  1. This is interesting..! Email as a communication resource IMO is so attractive because there is no perceived cost. Thus spamming! So what they’re doing, I think, is attaching an immediate virtual cost to the sending of an email. However it could be argued that it doesn’t matter whether that economy is virtual. Modern currencies are virtual anyway. They work because everybody subscribes to the convention of these little sheets of paper actually having an agreed-upon value. So, sooner or later this email currency, if it became widely accepted, would be connected to “real” money – the real economy. Oops, what then? Would it be too expensive to send a link to this article to ten friends?
    Am I making any sense?-)



  2. I totally agree with the premise that email does have an actually cost when related to productivity.

    I think of it, at least for myself, that I have only 100 units of importance a day for all email I receive. The difference in units from the most important to least important is 300%. If I receive only two emails where one is high importance and the other is low, then respectably there values are 75% and 25%. Since all the emails must share the 100 units, more emails I get then the less any of them can be and the difference becomes less between the most and the least important emails.


  3. Very interesting. This is the very problem of the “Priority” header today; some people (depending on personality) tend to mark all their mails as very high priority since there is cost attached to it.


  4. Interesting, but I don’t particularly want to see this sort of economistic behavior-modification paradigm applied to email. Enough of life is already governed by this kind of mentality as is.


  5. Didn’t Microsoft already a few years ago propose that idea, but with real money? They didn’t came really far with it, even though the idea per se is interesting, not sure of something like this will ever be excepted…

    But providers really could jump into this, by allotting a certain amount of “virtual money”, which the user could spend accordingly. Certainly an interesting idea!


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