Email Is Crushing Us, Can Activity Streams Free Us?

Activity streams promise to alleviate the email overload we've all come to know and dread. But we've got a ways to go before they can truly replace email as our main mode of electronic communication.

If you're struggling to keep your email box from overflowing, you are not alone—this morning, my inbox summary told me I had 616 new messages awaiting my attention. Now, that's a daunting way to start the day. 

Email overload is a well-documented phenomenon that has been linked to reduced productivity, inability to focus on important tasks, and even physical and emotional stress. So it is no wonder that alternative forms of communication are being actively pursued to reduce overload, both at home and at the office. One method that is gaining popularity is the activity stream.

Activity streams provide a way to syndicate updates about a user or a group of users within a social network site or across a group of sites. Twitter is the most popular consumer activity stream, although LinkedIn and Facebook have introduced streams as well. In an activity stream, users subscribe to posts from other participants, who broadcast or selectively publish messages called news items. News items are generally text, but they can also include documents, pictures, audio, or video.

The advantages of an activity stream over email are several-fold. A producer of information can simply broadcast information to the world without having to connect to every recipient. In the consumer world, this arrangement makes it easy for Ashton Kutcher to update his nearly 10 million Twitter followers, without having to create a personal connection with each one. In an organizational setting, this type of relationship is particularly well-suited to team operations. For example, when a new employees joins a project team, they can instantly get access to past and current updates simply by subscribing to the project activity stream. Conversely, it is easy for this team member to reach out to colleagues with new ideas, status updates, or questions, without creating an email storm.

Furthermore, activity streams can potentially reduce email overload by eliminating the dreaded infinite email thread. You know, the kind made possible by the malevolent "Reply All" button. The thread that starts innocuously enough with a question for team members; something like "Who is handling the Acme account?" This is instantly followed by 15 responses like "No idea," "I thought you were," and "Who is Acme?" which is followed by another round and another, ad infinitum. Just three rounds of this blather creates 45 junk email messages in every members' inbox, which translates to 225 total email messages. When multiplied across an entire organization, it is easy to see how this gets out of control very quickly.

While activity streams eliminate this clutter, anyone who uses Twitter knows that they introduce new problems. For example, if you subscribe to even a few chatty folks (and there is always someone at work like this), an activity stream quickly turns into a torrent of cacophonic noise. The issue is that consecutive messages lack context, which leads to a condition I call a "stream of unconsciousness."

To reduce the noise, activity stream filters are really important. In the consumer world, tools like TweetDeck and HootSuite let you filter content by people, keywords, or tags. Creating filters is easy enough, but striking the right balance between the right quantity of useful information and an overload of noise requires a lot of constant, manual work. Furthermore, when you subscribe to multiple social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, you now need to maintain and follow multiple sets of activity streams.

In the enterprise, the problem is even worse. Individual teams, departments, and divisions are already rolling out their own activity stream generators. Products that include enterprise social networking or microblogging capabilities create activity streams. Tools like Microsoft SharePoint, IBM Connections, Jive Software, Yammer, Chatter, and Newsgator let organizations create new silos of information flows. Combining these products in a meaningful way brings new challenges, since the tools are not interoperable.

It's safe to say that email is not going anywhere anytime soon. Unlike activity streams, email fulfills a basic need for one-to-one communication. Furthermore, email is universal; its standards were hammered out years ago, so you don’t need to use a particular product to send or receive it. And most importantly, everyone feels comfortable with email. And changing user behavior is the biggest impediment to getting new technologies adopted.

Having said that, in my next post, I will look at some practical solutions approaches for creating useful enterprise activity streams.

What do you think? Will activity stream take off in the enterprise? Tell me what you think in the comments; you can also email me at or tweet me at @dlavenda.

Related: Disgruntled Ex-Googlers Rethink The Way Gmail Works, With

Author David Lavenda is a high tech marketing and product strategy executive who also does academic research on information overload in organizations. He is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.

[Images: Flickr users whistlepunch and Robert Scoble]

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