Have you ever…
Sent an email to someone in EA and not heard back for many weeks (or more)?
Avoided sending an email to someone because you wanted to spare their attention, despite thinking there was a fair chance they’d be genuinely interested?
Wanted some way to signal that you actually cared more than usual about this email, but without having to burn social capital (such as by saying “urgent” or “please read”)?
Had to ignore an email because, even though it might have been interesting, figuring that out would simply have been too effortful?
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.
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:
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
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.
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?
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.)