Saturday, October 29, 2016

Use of Email at IITK

Recently, I checked my emails at IITK after a few days, and was surprised to find a large number of emails that were sent to a mailing list which included all students, faculty, staff, and many more. There are perhaps more than 10,000 users on this list.

The list is supposed to be used only for important, urgent information to be sent out to everyone. The rights to send an email is restricted to about 10 persons - Director, Deputy Director, all Deans, Head of CC, etc. Anyone interested in sending an email to all, can send an email to one of them requesting them to forward it to all. These people are supposed to use their discretion to figure out whether the mail deserves to be sent out to 10,000 users or not. But at least one of them would decide that it is not worth his/her time to go through all such email requests and filter. And the campus community quickly figures out who is that person who is willing to forward most easily.

In a typical university, mails to such a large list would be rarest of rare occasions, usually 1-2 emails in a year. But in IITK, we already have seen about 600 emails to all in 2016, that is about 2 emails a day.

The emails even included a request for donation because a kid in some part of India can not afford his/her medical treatment. We don't even know whether the request is for real or a scam, since the kid has no connection with IITK.

And the story is same on other large mailing lists as well. We announce every MTech thesis defense, and a reminder (and sometimes another email about change of location) on a list that has about 500 faculty, academic staff, and retired faculty. There are about 1000 such emails in a year. We announce every PhD State of the Art, Open Seminar, Thesis defense (and their reminders) to such a list. Another 1000 emails in a year. What would be the attendance if these announcements are made within the department, and the student/supervisor forwards the emails to a few more who they know are working in similar areas. The difference would be zero. I have attended many such vivas in CSE department, and never seen even one person there who claims to have come there because the event was announced on the large mailing list.

Clearly IITK is in love with emails. But is it an effective communication strategy. Clearly, the answer is in negative. A large number of users routinely delete such emails without even reading it through automatic filters. Today, people have moved way beyond emails. If you want to communicate, you must use multiple channels and more focused channels. Forcing people to listen to you through a "push" channel from where they can't opt out will only lead to installing such filters and even otherwise, not paying enough attention to those emails. In the last 10 years, one has consistently noticed very poor attendance in most Institute lectures and seminars, and notable exceptions have been those which I have organized (and I have organized many). The difference really has been that I am not dependent on email for informing users. I would use social media for many such communications, besides direct messaging to small focused groups. I used to manage FB lists of my connections who are IITK students/faculty/staff and post restricted access items about things at IITK. I got far more traction on FB than on email, even though FB placed a limit of 5000 "friends" and only 2000 of those "friends" were IITK students at that time.

We receive about 10 emails about Antaragni, the Student Cultural Festival, sent to 10000 users. Every day multiple emails remind us of important events, where to park our car, what are the entry points, where will security be, and so on. Why should such mails be sent. If I am interested, I should go to the festival website, which should have all this information. In fact, today, Antaragni should have an app, one can download that on one's smart phone and check everything from phone. But the emails are important because we haven't moved to "newer" technologies like website. If you look at Antaragni website (and I should clarify that I am only talking about sites till 2014 when I was on campus), the sole purpose of the site appears to be to tell the world that we know all the technologies and make sure that we don't give out any information whatsoever. Finding a schedule of events was a huge challenge, and if you managed to find one, it wouldn't have been updated. We were a couple of decades late to start using email, and I am sure, we will be a couple of decades late to start using web effectively.

So why does IITK love its email so much. Besides inertia, there are two problems. One we don't understand the cost of an email, and second, we don't realize that email is increasingly becoming ineffective.

For the cost, let us do a small calculation.  Consider the number of seconds that it would take an average user to read the Subject (and perhaps the first line) and hit the delete button. Multiply that by 10,000, convert that into number of hours. Consider an average cost of manpower, the kind of manpower that gets such emails. What would be that number.

Is 10 seconds a reasonable time to read the Subject and realize that it is not worth reading. That makes it 100,000 seconds, or 30 hours. Now if we look at the bottom of the pyramid - the lowest payment is for BTech students at about 100 rupees an hour. If we consider that as the average (obviously, the average will be much higher), we are talking about Rs. 3,000 as the value of time spent. Note that it assumes that everyone is smart enough to delete the email in 10 seconds. The real costs are much higher.

Also note that I am not talking about the cost of infrastructure, nor am I talking about the cost of manpower in managing lists, email servers, networks, etc. Assuming that the incremental costs are close to zero. Of course, there would also be some cost if someone is downloading email using mobile data. But let that also be ignored here.

Would these senders send that email, if the cost were to be borne by them, instead of being forced to share by 10,000 users.I can bet that 99% of the senders to "all" mailing list won't want to bear those costs. This would result in more efficient communication strategies. We will have more focused mailing lists. We would have mailing lists which are opt-in and instead of forced. We would start using whatsapp, facebook, googlegroups, and what not. We would have better websites.

I see use of email at IITK as yet another symptom (if any was needed) that we don't change with time. That we are stuck in history. You could see it everywhere. We don't want to video record the lectures. We don't want to use moodle or any other Learning Management System. We don't use social media. We don't have good websites. And mind you, all these technologies that I am listing above, most good universities have been using for 10-20 years.

So besides the cost, it is not even in senders' interests to use email. Unless, of course, the senders are only interested in ticking a box, and not interested in reaching out to their audiences.