Attention is expensive. Since most people think email is free, message proliferation has seen inboxes become progressively more noisy and difficult to manage. Most people err on the side of over-communicating and over-distributing despite that this incurs a cost to each recipient. Whether it’s extra time sorting through irrelevant message or even just taking the time to delete or archive unwanted messages, people increasingly spend more time in their inbox that isn’t actually centered around communication.
Many attempts have been made to address this problem. First and foremost, the spam filter, which attempts to separate out the most egregious of the unsolicited, irrelevant, and ignorable. Then, for non-spam, there’s sender-selected “priority.” The obvious problem with this is that it’s very subjective. A sender can only guess how important a message will be to the recipient, so they are more likely to use a value that is informed mostly by their own opinion and context. Furthermore, not having any way to curb demand for high priority status leads to rampant abuse. You know who those people are, consistently overstating priority in an attempt to stand out. This not only dilutes the value of the flag but can also create an arms race, forcing everyone to overstate priority to keep pace. Accepting that arbitrary sender-selected priority is not an effective solution, Google has attempted with the “priority inbox” to use heuristics to guess at a message’s value to the recipient, rather than to the sender, giving you an course grained “more important” vs. “less important” view of your messages. As a user of the priority inbox, I believe it really offers quite an improvement. But what it seems to be best at is separating mass emails, transactional messages, newsletters, and marketing blasts from emails sent directly to you by another person. Among emails that were sent to you individually or as part of a small distribution list, it doesn’t offer too much help. Lately Google, this time with Google Plus circles, is again attempting to help us sort our email, by letting us broadly categorize email based on who sent it. Useful again, no doubt, but still only helps us ignore more email rather than to help us get through it all. Even with all the improvements, you can still find skillshare classes on inbox management and “lifehacks” solely aimed at spending less time in your inbox.
Another, arguably less serious problem is knowing whether or not an email has been read on the other side. Email analytics tools almost universally require images to be enabled by the recipient’s client to reliably determine which are read and which aren’t. Read receipts are also imperfect, as they either may not be understood by the client, or simply chosen not to be returned. There’s rarely an incentive for the person to let you know only that they’ve read an email without responding.
Inspired by Facebook’s “pay to message” and a post by Esther Dyson describing that recipients, not Facebook, should be rewarded for their attention; today we’re unveiling a new side project: http://brib.in.
We’re trying this as a social experiment. How do sender and recipient behavior changes when you introduce one of the world’s best motivators: cold, hard cash. If you think your email is important, are you willing to pony up a dollar or two to attract attention to it and get a more reliable read/ignored indicator? As a recipient, are you willing to spend more time in your inbox if you’re compensated for that time? Can publicizing that you require a small bribe to read email effectively curb sender demand, leading to a more relevant — on average, anyway — inbox while simultaneously paying you for your eyeball time? The way the experiment works is that anyone can create and pre-pay a bribe targeted at a specific email address via Dwolla. This bribe (in the form of a bitly-esque short url) can then be included in an email to that address, and the user can attempt to call attention to the enclosed bribe in the subject line. If the recipient opens the email and follows the link, they’ll be given the opportunity to collect their money with one click. At that point, we will give the sender the equivalent of a read-receipt. Given the time sensitive nature of most emails, if the bribe isn’t accepted within a week, the bribe is returned to you and is no longer redeemable.
We imagine the most common bribe scenario will be sending email perceived to be important to someone who has a really noisy inbox. A couple of obvious examples are cold pitch emails sent by entrepreneurs to potential investors and favor/meeting requests to top influencers. If you happen to be one of those people who ignore a ton of email, we welcome you create a quick profile and publicize it so people will know you are more likely to read their message if they bribe you.
Thoughts, comments and feedback appreciated…