Communicating more efficiently with E-mail and Social Media

Every now and then – sometimes in response to one of my jubilant “inbox zero” tweets – people ask me for tips on how to communicate more efficiently using E-Mail as well as various social networks. For a long time I have resisted their questions or occasionally simply given people the link to the “Inbox Zero” video by Merlin Mann.

However, over the past year I gradually came to realize that while I initially started out just following the Inbox Zero paradigm in the spring of 2008, my system of dealing with E-Mail and social media interactions has evolved considerably since then.


I am not going to repeat any of the Inbox Zero principles here – for those I recommend the above-mentioned video or getting Merlin’s upcoming book on the subject – but instead will focus on what I do differently and in addition to his principles.


Inbox Zero2

Clearly zero2 is still zero, so take the topic with a grain of salt. My approach to keeping my E-mail inbox cleaned up and down to zero focuses much more on prevention than just managing the incoming flow of E-mail. An E-Mail that you don’t even receive in the first place immediately translates to less work spent on dealing with it.

Step 1

Get the best spam filter you can afford. Some come bundled with anti-virus and security software and those work well. Others are stand-alone products and that is fine, too. The most important thing is to configure it correctly so that all your contacts are white-listed and the spam settings are updated constantly via subscription service. If tuned correctly, a spam filter will virtually eliminate 98% of spam while yielding very little if not even zero false-positives.

Step 2

Once your spam filter is running smoothly, modify the Inbox Zero rules that you are using so that the most desirable action is no longer to delete an e-mail.  Instead, the most desirable action is now to mark an e-mail as junk and block the sender from ever sending you e-mail again. This sounds incredibly brutal, but just think of the countless newsletters, cartoons of the day, or other useless noise you’ve subscribed to at some point in time in the past and then think about how often you actually read them today. Instead of deleting them – which forces to delete them again and again and again week after week – unsubscribe from them if there is a legit unsubscribe-link at the bottom or mark them as junk so that the spam-filter will automatically delete them for you. The one exception is, of course, the Altova Developer Newsletter – that is the one newsletter you should indeed read every month.

Step 3

Whenever you are filling out a web form, placing an order, or requesting a white-paper, take great care in reading all the options and making sure to uncheck the “send me a monthly e-mail” check-box.

Step 4

Don’t hesitate to use the mark e-mail as junk and block the sender function on unsolicited sales messages, out-sourcing offers to India, or uninteresting and irrelevant business-development requests. This may feel a bit impolite at first, but remember: these messages came unsolicited, so there is no need to be polite or even respond at all.

Step 5

If there are annoying e-mails that you must receive as part of company-internal policies or correspondence that you cannot simply mark as junk e-mail, you may want to consider setting up a special folder for them and using a rule to automatically have those e-mails delivered into that folder. Then you simply make time once a week to read those internal e-mails and scan them for important information before you archive them.

Step 6

Last, but not least, observe your own e-mail behavior and realize that a lot of the e-mail you receive probably is in response to a question you sent. In essence, you are generating your own inbound e-mail flood. Now adjust your own behavior by determining which questions can be better and more efficiently dealt with in a phone call, an IM conversation, a Skype call, or even via social networking tools, like Twitter. You will find that as a result of adjusting your outgoing e-mail practices, your inflow will adjust in a similar fashion.

By adopting these steps and following all the other best practices from Inbox Zero you can develop a habit of reducing the amount of e-mail you have to deal with and keeping your inbox empty, your stress-levels low, and your to-do list nicely organized.


Be Smart. Get a Smartphone.

The second most important productivity increasing tool is the use of a smartphone. I personally prefer to use an iPhone, 4 but it doesn’t really make a difference if you use Android, Windows Phone 7, or the iPhone. The key is to set up your e-mail account in such a way that you can not only read your e-mail on your smartphone, but also process it according to Inbox Zero principles. This means you need to be able to (a) delegate e-mail via forwarding; (b) reply to e-mail quickly; (c) archive it after reading; and (d) delete it if it wasn’t important.

If your smartphone only allows you to read your e-mail, but doesn’t allow for the above processing, it is entirely useless, because now you are wasting time on reading an e-mail which you will have to later read again. If that is the case, you may need to get a better e-mail provider, better smartphone, or just figure out how to use it properly.

In my case we use a Microsoft Exchange server as our e-mail back-end system in the office, and I use an iPhone 4 as my smartphone – and it works like a charm and lets me do all the processing I need to do.

Now why is that important? The answer is quite simple: there are uncountable minutes of “dead time” during a day that you don’t even realize you have or that you are currently wasting. Anything from waiting at a Dr.’s office to an unproductive meeting and from waiting in front of the school to pick up your kids to standing in line at the post office. There are always unused periods of 3-4 minutes each – sometimes even 5-10 minutes – that you can use for reading and processing e-mail.

The Inbox Zero video teaches you to not have Outlook (or your preferred e-mail client) open all the time and instead dedicated specific periods of time during the day for dealing with e-mail. By using a smartphone and processing e-mail during otherwise dead periods of time, you can easily reduce the duration and frequency of your e-mail processing times during your work day and thus gain more productivity.

Once you get good at this, it will also no longer be necessary for you to set up “Out of Office” notifications when you are on a business trip. Instead you will find that you can easily deal with the normal e-mail inflow by using your smartphone during the day and perhaps spending one hour per day on dedicated e-mail processing on your laptop in the morning or evening in your hotel room, during which you reply to those e-mails that cannot be answered with a simple 1-line reply from the smartphone.


Social Media

We’ve already discussed that the Inbox Zero approach teaches us to not have the e-mail client running all day long so that it doesn’t interrupt our work constantly. The same is true – perhaps even more so – for social media. If you keep Facebook open in your browser the entire day, don’t be surprised if you can’t get anything done. The social life of our friends is guaranteed to always be more interesting than your current job or assignment.

I am by no means saying that social media are useless. But you can easily waste a lot of time, if you don’t deal with social media in a carefully measured approach.

My recommendation is to only open Facebook or other social media sites from your computer at home, but not use it at all from your work environment. If you have to check Facebook during the day, do it in your lunch break using your smartphone.

Last, but not least, think about your approach to social media. If you are primarily a consumer and reading what other people post, you are probably wasting a lot of time. Try a different approach and think of social media as your personal broadcasting tool to spread your ideas, amplify your blog, increase interest in your product – and you will find that a lot more productive interactions and real conversations will happen as a result.

At the same time, be careful that you are not getting sucked into over-sharing


Becoming even more efficient

Clearly, this blog post is already way too long. Which brings me to the one problem I haven’t mastered yet in my own communication: to try to keep all e-mail, messages, blog posts, etc. short and sweet. Ideally, I would want to aim at having all my e-mail be less than five sentences. But that is really hard to do…

Privacy, geo-location, and over-sharing

There has been plenty of discussion already on privacy settings on Facebook and how our approach to sharing personal information on social networking sites has changed over the years – and I’m not going to repeat any of that. However, the recent growth and considerable hype around geo-location, location-based services, and location-sharing on social networks has taken over-sharing to a whole new level.

Applications like FourSquare and Gowalla, who let users earn badges or awards for checking-in when they visit a restaurant or other location are now often linked to Facebook or Twitter. People post their travel plans on services like Dopplr and TripIt. Facebook itself added the Places feature recently. And Twitter has captured the location of each tweet for quite a while already, provided you use a Twitter app on your GPS-enabled smartphone or allow your browser to determine your location based on your IP address.

Now this all sounds really cool and for a while apps like Foursquare are indeed a novelty and fun to use. In fact, I like to experiment with new things myself and will admit to even becoming the mayor of 25 places on Foursquare, before I quit.

The problem with all of that geo-location information is, of course, that it is more widely available than you would imagine – and sometimes it is even publicly available, e.g. when you connect other geo-location services to Twitter, or when you use the geo-tagging of tweets on Twitter itself. Keep in mind that by default all tweets are public, unless you restrict them to only your followers.

PleaseRobMeConcerns about this issue have been voiced by others before, e.g. the web site PleaseRobMe.com was launched in early 2010 and displayed aggregate information from Twitter and other sources to publicly show when a person was not at home. It was a stunt to draw attention to this problem, and the site no longer shows that info, but it was an effective theoretical experiment.

This experimental threat has now become reality. Last week, police finally caught up with a burglary gang in New Hampshire that had robbed multiple homes this summer, where the homeowners had announced via Facebook that they were not at home, on a vacation, or provided some other information that could be used to infer that the house was going to be empty.

So what about using privacy settings to make sure only your real friends can see this information? That may sound like a good approach at first, but keep in mind that once you share that information with any app or social networking website, it is stored in a database somewhere – and once it is stored somewhere it can be found and abused by someone. In fact, just this week Google fired one of their engineers for stalking teenagers, whose information he had obtained from the kids’ GMail and chat accounts.

solution_thedevice We use GPS ankle-bracelets to track sex offenders and other criminals in our criminal justice system. As a free citizen, why would we voluntarily want to provide anybody with the same tracking information about our personal life and whereabouts?

So here is what I did this weekend to end my own over-sharing of geo-location information:

  • I deleted my FourSquare account and the FourSquare app from my iPhone
  • I deleted my Gowalla account
  • I deleted the Twitter app from my iPhone
  • I changed my Twitter settings to turn off “TweetLocation” and deleted all location information from my past tweets:
  • I deleted the Facebook app from my iPhone
  • I adjusted my Facebook privacy settings to hide all Places information, to not allow others to check me into Places, and to never include me in “People Here Now”. I also tightened down all the other privacy settings to the maximum.
  • I deleted my Dopplr account
  • I decided to no longer post any messages on Twitter or Facebook that would reveal my travel plans (“flying to Las Vegas tomorrow”), current location (“family dinner at Asahi – awesome sushi here”), or my whereabouts (“I’m on the boat”)

And I’m not even sure I got all the places that I may have signed up for in the past, so cleansing my digital tracks and removing all geo-location information and ending past over-sharing will be an ongoing process…

Get Twitter and Facebook results (and much more) in your search

OK, so the news are abuzz in recent days about Google adding real-time Twitter data to their search results and there is also a lot of blogging going on about Microsoft adding Twitter search to Bing. But the real news has been totally overlooked by the majority of tech blogs and news media until now: earlier this week kikin announced the start of their public beta on their blog by posting “we are live!

KikinLogo I’ve long been following kikin and was lucky enough to be one of their early testers, so I’ve been using the service for several months now – and I wouldn’t know what to do without it anymore. Kikin does one thing that neither a Google nor a Bing native Twitter or Facebook search can do: it gives me personalized and relevant search results from my feeds and my favorite websites right within the standard Google or Bing results and it lets me customize and select those personalized results in a very intuitive manner.

For example, since I shop on Amazon a lot, when I search for “Marblehead” on Bing, kikin will display personalized search results above the normal bing results that are relevant for me – in this case I find a great book by Ulrike Welsch that captures Marblehead in awesome photos:


As you can see, kikin has added these results above the normal search results, so you don’t have to change your browsing or surfing behavior or use a different search engine. There are several tabs that let you pick from which source you want to see relevant results, for example if I do the same search in Google and click on the Facebook tab in kikin, I see results directly from my Facebook news feed (i.e. only results posted by my friends on Facebook):


And obviously, if I click on Twitter, I can see relevant results only from people whom I follow, or I can even go a step further and only see relevant results that are directly addressed to me on Twitter:


By default, kikin only takes up very little space, so you still see your natural search results below, but if you want to focus on more results from one of your sources, you can expand the kikin box by clicking on the green plus sign in the lower right corner:


The truly remarkable thing about kikin is that it is non-invasive. If there are no relevant results in any of your feeds or favorite websites, then it won’t interfere and will just display the natural search result. Even if that is the case, kikin still adds tremendous value to that result, because it has a built-in video player enhancement that lets you watch every video you find within the natural search result directly within your result page rather than having to click through to the site:


So how does kikin do all of that? Kikin is a free browser plug-in that is currently available for Safari (on the Macintosh), Internet Explorer and FireFox (on WIndows). You can directly download and install the kikin plug-in from their website. Once you’ve installed the plug-in, you can use the Settings page to connect to your Facebook and Twitter accounts:


In all my recent testing I’ve found kikin to be invaluable in unearthing highly relevant content that is otherwise hidden in my social stream: by augmenting every Google or Bing search with results from my social media interactions, I find valuable information that would otherwise remain hidden, or would only be accessible if I repeated my search in three places.

And it is this deeply personalized addition to the search results that makes kikin so valuable. All those newly announced Search partnerships between Twitter and Bing or Google may be great, if you want to search the entire public stream for information (e.g. ski conditions in Colorado), but the results are not going to be as important to you, as results specifically from your actual friends on Facebook or information from people you follow on Twitter or from other websites you frequently visit. That is the true power of kikin: to augment search results with highly relevant and deeply personalized content.

So is kikin perfect? Of course not, it is just the first public beta version and I’m sure that they’ll iron out some minor issues over the next several months as they get reported by users. My only two complaints about kikin at this point in time are (a) that is doesn’t work with Chrome yet (but they’ve already announced that Chrome support will be coming) and (b) that if you use multiple browsers or multiple computers you have to connect your Facebook and Twitter accounts separately for each installation. I would probably have preferred to create one account on the kikin website, connect with my other social media accounts, and then just provided that one account login for each installation.

Sign of the times: different media used to relay birthday wishes

It is perhaps a sign of these times that birthday wishes are being relayed through different media than before and social media is clearly the winner in this. I did indeed celebrate my 42nd birthday yesterday, and just for fun I kept track of how the birthday wishes arrived:

  • 19th century technology (and earlier)
    • Postal mail: 1
    • Telephone: 3
  • 20th century technology
    • E-Mail: 14
  • 21st century technology (mostly social media)

What I find interesting about this is the huge difference between Twitter and Facebook – especially since I have 3,310 followers on Twitter vs. “only” 583 friends on Facebook. So on Twitter a total of 0.2% of my followers sent birthday wishes, whereas 9.3% of my friends on Facebook did. I guess the terms “follower” vs. “friend” are indeed quite accurate in describing the actual relationship on these two sites. Oh, and it does, of course, help that Facebook has this birthday reminder feature built-in…

While Twitter is getting a lot of buzz these days in the media, and while I really like it for news information, rapid dissemination of important links, and other trending topics, there is no doubt that the real winner in terms of where the actual social interactions are happening is Facebook.

In either case, if you are not yet on Twitter or Facebook, I highly recommend that you try and use both. And when you do, feel free to connect with me: afalk on Facebook / @afalk on Twitter.

Facebook has acquired FriendFeed

I’ve liked and used FriendFeed for a long time now, and I also enjoy using Facebook – mainly to stay in touch with family and friends.

So I was positively surprised to learn that Facebook acquired FriendFeed today. This has been confirmed on the FriendFeed Blog as well as in a Facebook press release.

This seems to be an excellent match, as Facebook has already “borrowed” quite a few features from FriendFeed and it seems that together these services can indeed achieve a lot more than as separate systems. Also, FriendFeed has been directly competing with Twitter in a lot of ways, so this acquisition furthers Facebook’s assault on Twitter. This will be very interesting to watch to see who comes out on top in the long-term.

More info can be found on TechMeme and TechCrunch

Google's Open Social API - is this the end of Facebook?

Google is holding a press conference right now, and it appears that they have everybody's support for the new Open Social API in an attempt to stem the popularity of Facebook among 3rd party Web 2.0 application developers. Supporting sites include MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Friendster, etc.

UPDATE: Full text of press release here.

TechCrunch has reported on this topic before and has some details on what the APIs contain.

Marc Andreessen also writes about the API and concludes that the Open Social API is "the next big leap forward". He cites two big differences compared to the Facebook APIs: (a) with Open Social API there can me more than one container, whereas with the Facebook API there is always only one container (i.e. Facebook); (b) the Facebook API requires the use of FBML and FQL, whereas with the Open Social API developers can use any standard HTML and JavaScript.

I haven't seen the actual Open Social API documentation yet, but I bet it'll be using XML all over the place. Good news for the XML Aficionado... ☺

Microsoft in talks to buy a stake in Facebook

The Wall Street Journal reported just now that Microsoft is in talks with Facebook to acquire a 5% stake in the company. The deal is said to result in a valuation for Facebook of $10 billion.

Both Google and Microsoft are said to have been in negotiations with Facebook at one time or the other, but Microsoft has an advantage at the moment, due to an exclusive agreement with Facebook to deliver ads to Facebook users that was signed last year and runs until 2011.

Question: why wouldn't either Google or Microsoft want to buy all of Facebook instead of just a 5% stake?

Answer (according to the Wall Street Journal):

"Microsoft has considered trying to buy the company outright, but people familiar with the matter said it's unlikely at this time. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has steadfastly kept his company independent with the goal of eventually taking the company public. In a round of negotiations last year, Mr. Zuckerberg rebuffed acquisition approaches from Microsoft, Yahoo and others."

See also my previous article "Facebook: it's not just for kids anymore..." on my XML Aficionado blog.

Also seen in Valleywag and TechCrunch today.

UPDATE: New posting in the WSJ Deal Blog has an interview with Bo Peabody, the 36-year-old founder of Tripod Inc. - one of the first social networks, all the way back in 1992.

Mash: Yahoo's new social networking site

Yahoo has launched Mash as a beta version (by invitation only) this weekend. It's (yet another) social networkig site that appears to be aimed at unseating Facebook, and their biggest differentiator is a wiki-like approach where people can edit each other's profiles. More importantly, you can create a new profile for somebody else and then inite them to "claim" that profile and make it theirs.

Hmmmm, I'm not sure that I really like that idea. Friends writing on my wall in Facebook is one thing, but having them edit my profile?!

Most things on Mash seem to definitely still be very much in beta stage, e.g. when I tried to import my Gmail address book to see how many of my 1,500 contacts are also on Mash, I got the following error:

"We could not find contacts from Gmail for you to add."

I guess we'll have to see how this evolves before we can pass a verdict. In the meantime, if you want to take a look, here is my Mash profile page...

Facebook: it's not just for kids anymore... (and it does XML, too)

Social networking sites have taken off over the last few years, and for a long time there seemed to be a clear divide: Doostang, Ecademy, LinkedIn, and Xing for business networking vs. Facebook, Friendster, and MySpace for kids (be it high-school or college). Plus every network had their own particular and sometimes even unique focus (e.g. Musicians on MySpace, Harvard and MIT grads on Doostang, and lots of Europeans on Xing).

But things are not so simple anymore. As Facebook grows in popularity amongst "business types" due to several unique features that set it apart from the likes of LinkedIn (more on that later), the character of the network changes and it also gives rise to some interesting generation-conflict issues, such as in Liz Ryan's recent article "Worlds Colliding: My Mom's on Facebook!" in the BusinessWeek Career Insight column.

So what are these unique features that set Facebook apart from the rest of the social networking sites? There's been plenty of already, so I won't recite it all. Instead, I'll just say that it was these things that got me excited:

  • Great UI design: the user interface is clean, customizable, and elegant - yet is provides for an environment that is actually fun to work with. Very much unlike MySpace (chaos) or Doostang (boring)! LinkedIn and Xing are not necessarily bad in their UI design, but Facebook is simply so much better. Designing a great user interface is just as important for Web 2.0 applications, as it was for regular desktop software. What can I say: when it comes to Altova's developer tools I've always been working hard to ensure we invest in the best UI design (and as a result, I regularly hear "XMLSpy rocks" or similar comments when I talk to people at conferences or trade shows).

  • Open platform that uses XML: 3rd party developers can add to it, and masses of developers are already flocking to the platform. Facebook applications are using FBML (Facebook Markup Language), which extends HTML by additional FBML elements (in the fb: namespace) that are described by this XML Schema (yes, I know, they call it a DTD, but it's really an XML Schema - I should tell them to use the DTD and XML Schema tools in XMLSpy to fix this). In addition to the FBML describing the user interface, the 3rd party applications call a Facebook API, where most parameters and results are transmitted in XML (e.g. see the description of the Events.getMembers API call).

  • Privacy control: it has much more fine-grained controls on what information I want to share with friends, the network, or everyone. Only Xing is still slightly better than Facebook in this regard, because of its European roots.

  • Flexible integration: it allows me to integrate my blog and new postings are automatically part of my Facebook news feed. In the same way I can integrate my photos (SmugMug), videos (YouTube), and other content. While some of the other networks only allow me to post a maximum of 3 links (LinkedIn), Facebook allows me to link as many web sites as I want and lets me directly integrate any RSS feed and have it automatically post to my profile. The only similar offering I've seen so far (other than dedicated news aggregators) is the new Plaxo pulse (beta).

There you have it, I'm going to join Robert Scoble and openly state that I like Facebook. Send me a friend request, when you get your account set up...