Could we solve this email mess if we all moved to paid emails?

post by jacobjacob · 2019-08-11T16:24:11.841Z · score: 13 (18 votes) · EA · GW · 19 comments

This is a question post.

Contents

  Background
    Costly signalling and avoiding information asymmetries
    How the signalling problem is currently solved, and why that’s bad
  Brief FAQ
    What if replacing email with paid emails puts us in another equilibrium that’s bad for unexpected reasons?
    What if people don’t have enough money?
    Wouldn’t this waste a lot of money?
  If this is basically right: then what do we do?
None
  Answers
    30 rosiecampbell
    11 Khorton
    3 Mati_Roy
None
4 comments

Have you ever…

I think that 1) problems like these are prevalent, 2) they have pretty bad consequences, and 3) they could be partly solved by using services where you can pay to send someone an email (payment is usually conditional on reply).

I’m considering running a coordination campaign to move the community to using paid emails (in addition to their ordinary inbox), but before launching that unilaterally I want more confidence it is a good idea, hence I'm asking this question.

Background

Email seems broken. This is not that surprising: your email is basically a to-do list where other people (and companies) can add items for free, without asking; and where you’re the only one who can remove them. We should do something about this.

More broadly, the attention economy seems broken. Recognising this, many EAs use various software tools to protect themselves from apps that are engineered to be addictive. This helps at an individual level, but it doesn’t help solve the collective action problem of how to allocate our attention as a community. We should do something about this.

Costly signalling and avoiding information asymmetries

An “information asymmetry” is situation where someone has true information which they are unable to communicate. For example, suppose 10 economists are trying to influence government policy on issue X, and one of them actually, really knows what the most effective thing is. Yet, they might not be able to communicate this to the decision-makers, since the remaining 9 have degrees from equally prestigious institutions and arguments that sound equally rigorous to someone without formal training in economics. Information asymmetries are a key mechanism that generate bad equilibria.

When it comes to email, this might look as follows: Lots of people write to senior researchers asking for feedback on papers or ideas, yet they’re mostly crackpots or uninteresting, so most stuff is not worth reading. A promising young researcher without many connections would want their feedback (and the senior researcher would want to give it!), but it simply takes too much effort to figure out that the paper is promising, so it never gets read. In fact, expecting this, the junior researcher might not even send it in the first place

This could be avoided if people who genuinely believed their stuff was important could pay some money as a costly signal of this fact. Actual crackpots could of course also pay up, but 1) they might be less likely to, and 2) the payment would offset some of the cost of the recipient figuring out whether the email is important or not.

How the signalling problem is currently solved, and why that’s bad

Currently, the signalling problem is solved by things like:

This is bad, because:

1) It’s a slippery slope to a really bad equilibrium. I’ve gotten emails with titles like “Jacob, is everything alright between us?” because I didn’t e.g. buy a water bottle from some company. This is what we should expect when companies fight for my attention without any way to just directly pay for it. Even within the EA community, if our only way of allocating importance is by drawing upon very serious vocabulary, we’ll create an incentive for exaggeration, differentially favouring those less scrupulous about this practice, and chip away at our ability to use shared-cues-of-importance when it really matters.

2) The main thing protecting us from this inside a smaller community is that people want to preserve their reputations. But if you’re unsure how important your thing is, and mislabeling it means potentially crying-wolf and risking your reputation, this usually makes it more worth it to just avoid the tag. Which means that we lose out on all those times when your thing actually was important and using the tag would have communicated that.

3) It puts the recipient between a rock and a hard place, and they’re not being compensated for it. If you mark something as “[Urgent]” that actually is urgent, and the person responds and does what you want, you’ve still presented them with the choice between sacrificing some ability to freely prioritise their tasks, and sacrificing some part of the quality of your relationship. There should be some easy way for you to compensate them for that.

4) It’s way too coarse-grained. There’s not really any way of saying:

“This is kinda important, but not that urgent, though it would probably be good if you read it at some point, though that depends on what else is on your plate”

apart from writing exactly that -- but then you’re making a complicated cognitive demand, which has already burnt lots of attention for the recipient.

Brief FAQ

What if replacing email with paid emails puts us in another equilibrium that’s bad for unexpected reasons?

At the moment, it doesn’t seem feasible for us to use this to replace email. There isn’t even software available for doing that completely. Rather, people would consent to receiving paid messages (for example via earn.com, see below) in addition to having their regular inbox.

What if people don’t have enough money?

As mentioned above, sending standard emails are still an option. Yet this becomes a problem in the world where we move to the equilibrium where a standard email is taken to signal “I didn’t pay for this, so it’s not that important”. Then I can imagine grants for “email costs” being a thing, or that the benefits of the new equilibrium outweigh this cost, or that they don’t. I’m uncertain.

Wouldn’t this waste a lot of money?

Not really, assuming that the people who you send money to are at least as effective at spending it as you are, which seems likely if this gets used within the EA community.

If this is basically right: then what do we do?

Earn.com is a site which offers paid emails. For example, you can pay to message me at earn.com/jacobjacob/

If this seems like something that could solve the current email mess, we should coordinate to get a critical mass of the community to sign-up, and make their profile url:s available. (Compare this to how we’ve previously started using things reciprocity.io and Calendly.)

I’d be happy to coordinate such a campaign, but I don’t want to do it until I’m more confident it would be a good thing. I hope to use this questions to help figure that out.

(For the record, I have no relation to earn.com and would not benefit personally by others joining, beyond the obvious positive effects on the community. They simply seem like the best available option for doing this. They have a pretty solid team, and are used by some very senior VCs like Marc Andreessen and Keith Rabois.)

Answers

answer by rosiecampbell · 2019-08-11T19:50:08.254Z · score: 30 (12 votes) · EA · GW

Based on the title of this I felt initially skeptical, but after reading the full article I updated towards this being an interesting thing to try.

A few thoughts/concerns:

  • I seem to be unusual in that I don't find email management particularly difficult. I unsubscribe from all marketing emails immediately, and have a strict inbox zero policy which means any emails that require an action or time-consuming response are moved to my task manager, where they can be easily prioritized. I think it's rare that I accidentally miss an email I would have otherwise responded to; if I don't respond it's usually because I actively deprioritized it. The prioritization process itself doesn't feel too taxing for me.
  • Thinking about the kind of emails I get, and which ones I think are worth responding to vs which ones I predict would choose to pay for a response, I find it hard to imagine that these overlap, so I'm not sure if it would be a helpful signal. I'd change my mind on this if I tried it and it turned out they did generally overlap.
  • If imagine myself wanting to send a busy person an email and considering using a paid email, I immediately worry about making them feel obliged to respond even if they don't want to, or tempting them to respond even if it isn't a good use of their time, etc. Because of this, I'm not sure it solves the social capital issue of using words like 'urgent' or 'important'.
  • I also share Khorton's concern about it looking weird to people outside of EA and having reputational effects.

I wonder whether educating and encouraging good email hygiene could be an easier solution (at least initially). Some email hygiene tips:

  • Think really hard about what you want to achieve by emailing someone. Can you achieve it another way and preserve their attention? If not, make it as easy as possible for the recipient to give you what you need.
  • Ask specific questions rather than open-ended questions.
  • Use bullets and whitespace.
  • Put in the extra time it takes to keep it brief.
  • Be polite and friendly, but get to the point. It's usually ok to skip 'Hope this finds you well! How was your weekend?' etc.
  • Provide any necessary context as clearly and succinctly as possible (including introducing yourself or reminding them who you are or what the project is and why you are asking them specifically - remember it won't be as fresh in their mind as it is in yours!)
  • Attach or link to any necessary files, documents, or resources.
  • Use bold text to draw the eye to important parts (e.g. due dates or actions).
  • If it's a short message to broadcast some info, put it in the subject followed by 'EOM' (end of message) so people know they don't need to open the email (also consider 'NNTR' (no need to reply)).
  • If asking someone to review a document, tell them which sections you most want them to focus on, and whether you are looking for minor corrections like typos or rephrasing, ideas for new points/sections, or are open to feedback that could result in needing to rewrite the whole thing.
  • If asking for career advice, include your CV, and any thinking you've done so far. Include whether you are looking for connections (and if so, what kind), guidance, job opportunities, or something else.
  • Unsubscribe from all marketing or irrelevant emails. Archive anything that doesn't require action. Move anything that does into a task manager. Keep inbox zero.
comment by aarongertler · 2019-08-12T06:43:23.291Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I really like these suggestions. One thing I didn't see, which can be really helpful on the recipient side: Be ready to respond with a "pre-response response".

For example, when I do editing for EA Forum posts, rather than let something sit until I'm ready to read through it, I might respond to the sender saying something like: "I expect to get to this by Friday. If you don't have an email from me by then, you're welcome to follow up and bother me about it."

This lets the other person know I've seen their message and plan to respond. I might also say, if I'm really crunched for time/prioritization: "I don't know whether I'll have time to get to this at all; if you don't hear from me, I'd recommend X", where X might be "emailing someone else", "reading an article", "posting your piece as-is", etc.

comment by rosiecampbell · 2019-08-12T18:21:20.426Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Yes this is a great one!

comment by jacobjacob · 2019-08-12T12:22:32.829Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

This is super helpful, thanks (and that's a really awesome list of email hygiene tips, I've saved it).

I wonder whether educating and encouraging good email hygiene could be an easier solution (at least initially).

I think it would improve things on the margin, and also has a much smaller risk of landing us in a worse equilibrium, so it seems robustly good for people to do.

Still, I'm not super excited because if you believe that the initial mess is a coordination problem, the solution is not for individuals to put in lots of effort to be helpful; but for everyone to jointly move to another game where the low-effort/incentivised action is to cooperate rather than defect.

comment by richard_ngo · 2019-08-12T15:46:59.714Z · score: 31 (10 votes) · EA · GW

It's not clear to me that we are in a mess. The only actual example you gave was a spammy corporate newsletter, which seems irrelevant.

This might look as follows: Lots of people write to senior researchers asking for feedback on papers or ideas, yet they’re mostly crackpots or uninteresting, so most stuff is not worth reading. A promising young researcher without many connections would want their feedback (and the senior researcher would want to give it!), but it simply takes too much effort to figure out that the paper is promising, so it never gets read. In fact, expecting this, the junior researcher might not even send it in the first place.

Does this happen much? Have you received feedback from people saying that this has happened to them? I expect personal networks in EA to be pretty good at connecting people - and if a young researcher is promising they can often explain why in a sentence or two (even if it's just by name-dropping previous positions).

Currently, the signalling problem is solved by things like:
Spending lots of effort crafting interesting-sounding intros which signal that the thing is worth reading, instead of just getting to the point
Burning social capital -- adding tags like “[Urgent]” or “[Important]” to the subject line

Does the latter actually happen? I've never seen it. Also, why is the former bad? It seems like an even better costly signal than paying money to send emails because it also produces a short description of the work which helps the recipient evaluate it. And very few people have too little time to skim a paragraph-long summary.

comment by jacobjacob · 2019-08-13T17:39:52.440Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA · GW
It's not clear to me that we are in a mess.

Well, that's why I'm posting this -- to get some data and find out :)

(I guess the title seemed to have turned a few people off, though)

In hindsight, I should have made the intended use-cases clearer in the post. I optimised for shipping it fast rather than not at all, but that had its costs.

The reason I wrote this was basically entirely motivated by problems I've encountered myself.

For example, I’ve spent this year trying to build an AI forecasting community, and faced the awkward problem of needing a critical mass of users, but at the same time recruiting from a base with high opportunity costs and attention value (largely EA). This usually involves a pain-staking process of thinking carefully about who we message and how much, and being quite risk-averse and rather not messaging people at all when we're uncertain. I would have loved the ability to send paid emails, such that if we did happen to spam people, they could just claim some compensation. Moreover, this is a scalable strategy which would avoid the failure mode where project's like ours which think a lot about attention costs get deprioritised in favour of projects which don't.

As another example, I've considered unilaterally launching initiatives that seemed important and that no one was doing (like this!), but that very busy people might have reservations/opinions about. This put me in a spot of making awkward trade-offs along the lines analysed above.

In addition to that, I added on some problem that I've not personally experienced but which seemed like they should happen due to basic microeconomics.

comment by richard_ngo · 2019-08-14T15:24:43.975Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA · GW

This all makes sense, and it does seem that people who are launching big projects might benefit from paid emails as a norm. On the other hand, you seem unusually worried about "spamming" people by sending them things it's pretty plausible they'd be interested in. It would be fairly easy to put at the top of your email something like "If you're interested in doing AI forecasting, read on; otherwise feel free to ignore this email" which means the cost is something like ~10 seconds per uninterested recipient, which seems reasonable.

On a meta note, I think I felt less positively towards this post than I otherwise would have, because it felt like a call to action (which I hold to high standards) rather than an exploratory poll - e.g. I read the first few bullet points as rhetorical questions. Seems like it was just a phrasing issue; and as an exploratory poll, I think it's interesting and I'm glad to have had the issue brought to mind :)

answer by Khorton · 2019-08-11T16:42:13.785Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · EA · GW

I'm hesitant about this because I think it would be costly to implement, in terms of time and attention, and because I think it's very weird and could negatively affect our reputation.

Putting that to one side, I'm trying to think through what the social norms would be around this for a few examples:

-If I emailed 80,000 Hours with a career question and £20, should I expect them to definitely respond? Does this lead to a market for private career coaching? On the other hand, what if I sent them a £500 email and they never responded - couldn't I be rightfully upset?

-If Julia Wise were prioritising paid emails in her role regarding community health, is she more likely to miss emails from people on the periphery of EA or who have less money, who are potentially very vulnerable?

-Would this system represent a power shift toward people with more money, because they can more easily pay large amounts?

comment by rosiecampbell · 2019-08-11T18:58:01.691Z · score: 11 (8 votes) · EA · GW

(FYI, my understanding is that you only pay if you get a response, so I don't think the example of people feeling entitled to a response from 80,000 Hours applies)

comment by jacobjacob · 2019-08-12T10:59:46.333Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I think the way to answer the question is: "given the distribution of equilibria we expect following this change, what are the expected costs and benefits, and how does that compare with the costs and benefits under the current equilibrium?" (as well as considering strategic heuristics like avoiding irreversible actions and unilateralist action.)

I don't update much on your comment since it feels like it's just pointing out a bunch of costs under a particular new equilibrium, without engaging enough with how likely this is or what the benefits would be. [1]

For example:

-If Julia Wise were prioritising paid emails in her role regarding community health, is she more likely to miss emails from people on the periphery of EA or who have less money, who are potentially very vulnerable?

Here, by assumption, Julia Wise already gets so many emails that she misses some/has to prioritise. So the question is: what gets prioritised currently, and would get prioritised under the new system? There would likely be a shift towards people with more money being more able to get their issues heard -- but I'd expect it to be very small (e.g. initial email costs of $5-$25 might be enough). It might also allow her to find out about stuff she otherwise wouldn't ("I don't know if this is worth your time, though it might be, and if it wasn't, here's $10 to offset the attention cost").

Though to be clear, I've not thought a lot about community health matters, and it's not the area where I would pilot this.

[1] To be clear, I'm not claiming you should do the entire analysis, this would be an isolated demand for rigor. Just to engage more with opposing points and say why they're not convincing.

comment by Khorton · 2019-08-12T14:15:55.666Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · EA · GW

I guess I don't experience major problems with email (sending or receiving), so I don't see very significant benefits. I just read your post as very costly ways to achieve marginal gains.

comment by jacobjacob · 2019-08-12T11:09:33.500Z · score: 0 (3 votes) · EA · GW

On the topic of weirdness: I expect that if what I'm pointing to is a real problem, and paid emails would help the situation, then the benefits from becoming more effective at coordinating internally would massively outweigh reputational risks from increased weirdness.

I find it somewhat hard to elucidate the reasons I believe this (though could try if you'd want me to), but some hand-wavy examples are Paul Graham's thoughts that it's almost always a mistake for startups to worry about competitors as opposed to focusing on building a good product (see paragraph 4); as well as extremely succesful organisations with pretty weird internal practices (e.g. Bridgewater, Amazon).

comment by ChristianKleineidam · 2019-08-12T16:15:26.461Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · EA · GW

How would this be an "internal practice"? The only way this would work would be to have people publically post their earn addresses.

I think you underrate the cost of weirdness.

Let's say there's a journalist who wants to write a story where he might ask a high-status EA to comment because it falls into their domain expertise.

Then the journalist searches for ways to contact the EA and finds that the EA prefers to get cold approaches via this system. The journalist might think: "This is bad, I don't have a budget for this, paying sources is what evil people do". Even when the journalist then finds that there's a free way to contact the EA, they have their first contact with negative emotional attachment.

While the kind of his status EA that might be contacted this way might get more emails then they prefer, it's important for them to be easily contacted by outsiders because that allows for valuable interactions to happen.

comment by jacobjacob · 2019-08-13T18:11:26.508Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW
How would this be an "internal practice"? The only way this would work would be to have people publically post their earn addresses.

"Internal" in the sense of being primarily intended to solve internal coordination purposes and primarily used in messaging within the community.

I think you underrate the cost of weirdness.

You gave a particular example of a causal pathway by which weirdness leads to bad stuff, but it doesn't really cause me to change my mind because I was already aware of it as a failure mode. What makes you think I underrate the cost in comparison to the benefits of coordination?

While the kind of his status EA that might be contacted this way might get more emails then they prefer, it's important for them to be easily contacted by outsiders because that allows for valuable interactions to happen.

They'd still have a normal email. Though there is a risk of moving to an equilibrium for non-paid emails get no attention, and I haven't thought that through in detail.


answer by Mati_Roy · 2019-08-13T02:51:05.416Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I like the post and comments, and exploring this idea-cluster in general; thanks for sharing. I have other ideas I think would be useful in that idea-space, but I'm not sure this one would be useful for me as an email-receiver. I currently have no problem reading all my emails, and receive very few undesirable emails, and if someone send me a long task by email, I have no problem declining or asking for money (and do work as a contractant through PayPal or UpWork). I feel this is like this for most people except a few public figures. As an email-sender, I would like if people that are unreachable by email had a price instead of a barrier (which acts as an infinite price); but I wouldn't use that feature often I think (maybe 1-10 times per year).

19 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by capybaralet · 2019-08-15T02:30:17.971Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Overall, I'm intrigued and like this general line of thought. A few thoughts on the post:

  • If you're using earn.com, it's not really email anymore, right? So maybe it's better to think about this as about "online messaging".
  • Another (complementary) way to improve email is to make it like facebook where you have to agree to connect with someone before they can message you.
  • Like many ideas about using $$ as a signal, I think it might be better if we instead used a domain-specific credit system, where credits are allotted to individuals at some fixed rate, or according to some rules, and cannot be purchased. People can find ways of subverting that, but they can also subvert the paid email idea (just open all their emails and take the $$ without reading or responding meaningfully).
comment by aarongertler · 2019-08-12T06:47:13.409Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Do you have any data on the extent of the "email mess", either within the community or in the general space of "people who do a lot of work through their email"? I don't have an intuitive idea for how stressed the average person is by email, much less the average person in EA (we're an unusual group in some ways).

This is the kind of thing that could be a good Effective Altruism Poll, by the way!

comment by jacobjacob · 2019-08-12T10:34:00.913Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I'm posting this as a first step towards collecting data. Poll is a good idea, thanks!

comment by jacobjacob · 2019-08-12T10:42:56.036Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

This was crossposted to LessWrong, replacing all the mentions of "EA" with "rationality", mutatis mutandis.