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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Beyond email: the constantly changing realm of communication

If you email Paul Jones, you’ll receive a swan song to the electronic communication he helped bring to Carolina: “Good-bye Email, I’m divesting.”

Jones, who gave up email June 1, 2011, insists he isn’t being elusive.

The body of the instant reply names nearly 20 other ways to keep in touch with Jones, including Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Skype and LinkedIn. To collaborate on a paper, upload it to Google Docs. To set up an appointment, look him up on Google Calendar and add yourself to a free space.

Make a video and upload it to YouTube. Send him a text message. You can still drop by his office in Manning Hall or pick up the phone, like people did in the old days.

Jones’s automatic reply signs off with, “Peace, Love and Understanding.”

But understanding isn’t a given. How can we live without email?

Inspired by ‘Magic School Bus’

Miss Frizzle, the red-haired teacher from the popular “Magic School Bus” educational books has a favorite line that Jones said helps define his progression through more than three decades of information technology at UNC: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”

Jones, who started at Carolina in 1977 in the Office of Information Technology and now holds joint appointments in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and School of Information and Library Science, helped write the code for UNC’s first email program nearly 30 years ago.

He went office to office, singing the praises of email’s superiority to the inter-office memo.“At the time, I had people rhapsodize over the texture of paper that came out of a Xerox machine,” he said. “‘It’s something about holding it in your hand, it’s something about the way the words are formed.’ In an office memo?”

It’s human nature, Jones said: If things are working for you, why should you learn something new?

Like the inter-office memo of days gone by, Jones thinks email has run its course. He was spending hours filing, deleting and responding to misdirected mail, retail discounts and spam. The platform, he said, sucked away time from more meaningful communication.

“I’d come in, pour a cup of coffee, and spend the next 45 minutes managing email,” he said.

Jones started to realize that more highly interactive communication forms, like video, would bypass email, and he asked himself whether he was willing to risk making the change.

Keep moving forward

“Sometimes I envy Paul and his no email,” said Barbara Moran, dean emerita and professor in the School of Information and Library Science. “I’d gain hours in my day. But would I be able to do what I need to do? I’m not sure I would.”

Moran spends at least two hours each day dealing with her email. It isn’t uncommon.

“I’ll have 40 messages in my inbox, and they just keep coming,” she said. “People are afraid to go away on vacation because they worry they are going to come back to 10,000 messages. I think we’re all tethered to our electronic information now.”

With electronic information here to stay, Moran said an academic institution like Carolina has to keep moving forward. The worst thing to do in a university environment is stop learning how to do new things.

“We have people working in the library who came in when there was nothing but card catalogs,” she said. “During the course of a career, how do you stay up with the changes? You have to constantly be flexible and always open to new ideas and new technologies. If you don’t, you just can’t serve your patrons very well.”

Nothing completely displaces what came before, she said. New features from new programs make life easier, and remaining open to them makes change less overwhelming.

Staying connected to 20 social networking platforms doesn’t seem that it would be easy, and Jones said it isn’t. In the future he’ll narrow down the social networking services he uses, but right now he knows he needs to remain hyper-connected to collaborate.

“It would make more sense if I just focused on one or two social networking solutions, and one day I probably will,” he said. “But I’m asking other people to change their patterns, and I feel like I should be doing things to make that easy for them.”

Finding your own way

Students, he said, now reserve email for communicating with parents and administrators – because they have to. On a sunny day, he sees them on the quad, using Face Time on their iPhones to show faraway friends their beautiful campus.

“You have students who are on a four-year cycle, and they come in adept at the newest practices, and that’s what they expect. They like communication to be mobile, terse, under their control, visibly pleasing, highly interactive and with different degrees of privacy,” he said.

Many of them, he said, gave up email for social networking long ago, and it’s worth exploring why.

“It’s not that they don’t use email, but that they don’t use it the same way we do,” said Chris Williams, program director of ResNET, which provides on-site IT support, education and the technology infrastructure for the UNC residential communities.

Students have to use email to communicate with professors, he said, but they typically spend more time filtering spam than reading messages. “On average, they are receiving 50 to 100 messages a day,” he said. “We’ve learned that to effectively communicate with students, you have to make your message available in every possible form to cater to all students.”

Jones acknowledges that most employees on campus need email. But when it starts to take over the day, he suggests adding in some of the social networking platforms people have mastered in their private lives.

“Can you and a colleague instead ask each other quick questions through a chat program?” he asked. “Sure. It’s less of an interruption than an email you worry you’ll forget to return.”

Moran agrees that even if people can’t go the no-email route, they can look for ways to manage an overwhelming inbox.

“Even our students spend an inordinate time on email,” she said. “You have to find what works with your personality and your own life, the way you manage all the other things you have going on.”

Some people check and return email once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Moran reads each email as it comes in, something she admits might be a time hog. But it’s more her style as an educator and researcher who wants to remain open to her students and collaborators.

“I hear the little noise and I feel like someone is talking to me, and I need to answer them,” she said.

In the end, both Jones and Moran agree, the search for the most meaningful form of communication comes down to service. And on a university campus, it will never be a one-size-fits-all solution.

“When you look at what your customers are doing, and what they want from you, you have to ask yourself: ‘Am I doing my best to really serve this person?’ Because that should be your goal,” Jones said.