My Cornell post office has sophisticated email spam detection, and so does my email client; but in spite of these two layers of defense, I still waste time deleting email from alleged Nigerian royalty. The problem with spam is that it costs virtually nothing to distribute, which is why the Internet is so full of it. In 2001, spam made up only 5% of traffic on the Internet; by 2004, it had risen to 70%, and in 2007 it had topped 90%, according to an New Yorker article.

And yet bona-fide business email is exploding as well for the same reason, gradually sucking up workers’ productive time. In a particularly interesting article published this past May in First Monday, Byron Reeves et al attempt an experiment in which workers are given synthetic currency to tag to their email. The theory behind the experiment is that senders would measure out their limited currency based on the importance of the message (and avoid sending unnecessary ones), and readers would be able to use these currency signals to prioritize what to read. Attention is the limited resource in the market place, and synthetic currency is used to regulate behavior.

E–mail has created a tragedy of the commons, encouraging casual placement of cheap information in the in–boxes of all, with seemingly no regard to one’s own information space. As is true eventually for most free goods, e–mail is overused. (Reeves et al, 2008)

The authors report that while email with large currency attachments are opened faster than email with no attachments, there is a surprising delay with which readers attend to messages with small currency attachments (see hump in the graph below).

Time to read email varies by currency

The authors believe that messages with zero currency attachments carry a sense of uncertainty with them, as opposed to messages with small currency, which signal low importance. Hence, ambiguity has an advantage over low value signals.

Where am I going with this? The act of publishing can be thought of as creating signals that are attached to article manuscripts, the purpose of which is to alert authors what they should spend their time reading. High-prestige signal = read. Low-prestige signal = ignore. The function of editorial and peer review can be thought of as no more than sending out similar signals to potential readers.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.

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