February 28, 2007 4:00 AM PST

A cure for e-mail attention disorder?

Corporate managers concerned about the amount of time employees spend sifting though mountains of unwanted e-mail may soon have World of Warcraft to thank for providing a solution.

That's because a Palo Alto, Calif.-based start-up called Seriosity has come up with an e-mail management system that borrows heavily from the virtual economies and currencies found in WoW and other large-scale online games.

Images: Handling e-mail overload

Known as Attent, Seriosity's system is essentially a new currency--called the Serio--that corporate e-mail users spend to indicate a message's importance: the more important they believe the message is, the more Serios they spend on it. Recipients keep the Serios in the messages they get.

Similarly, when someone receives a message with Serios attached, they can indicate how important they believe it is by responding with an appropriate number: none or very few if they think the message wasn't valuable, an equal number if they want the sender to know they appreciated the message, or more than the original number to show they agree that it truly was crucial.

But Serios is a currency, and therefore a scarce resource, so people get a limited amount. The idea is that they have to spend the currency wisely, always making sure they have enough to send more with future messages.

And while the system, strictly speaking, is enterprise software, it was directly inspired by the virtual economies of online games like WoW. There, players accumulate gold or platinum pieces or some other form of currency and can spend them on weapons, armor, dwellings and the like that have real monetary value as demonstrated by what people will pay for them on auction and third-party sites.

Ultimately, the point of Serios is to help large enterprises manage their employees' attention.

"The real value of the 21st century organization is in its people, and the organization only does what the people put their attention on," said Edward Castronova, a leading expert on virtual economies who is consulting for Seriosity. "Yet in the age of e-mail, pagers, IMs and cell phones, our attention is like roadkill. My argument was that if a synthetic currency gets people to trade gold pieces for (virtual items), it could get them to trade Serios for attention. When you pay for a (virtual item), you're just asking for attention: 'Cast this spell on me' is the same thing as 'Read my e-mail.'"

In the age of e-mail, pagers, IMs and cell phones, our attention is like roadkill.
-- Edward Castronova,
Seriosity consultant

According to a study by Basex (PDF), the total cost to the U.S. economy of attention-management problems caused by e-mail and other online tools is $588 billion a year. Seriosity says it has a corporate client--which it would not name--for whom the problem costs about $1 billion a year.

And while Seriosity doesn't believe it can solve that entire problem, it is hopeful that businesses that purchase Attent and have significant numbers of employees using Serios can see substantial decreases in time and money wasted by e-mail and attention mismanagement.

"Let's pretend that we can solve 10 percent" of the problem, said Seriosity CEO Ken Ross of his company's major client with the $1 billion e-mail management problem. "That's still a huge savings."

Under Attent, people would receive weekly allowances of Serios, most likely 100. That number would be the same for everyone, no matter who they are. But the idea is that managers and higher-level executives would accumulate more of the currency because they receive more messages. That means, in turn, that they have more Serios to spend on responses.

Further, people can sort messages by numbers of Serios attached, allowing them to sift through the hundreds of e-mails they may get every day and see which ones that senders have deemed the most important.

And while people cannot tell how many Serios someone else has, they can see the average number of Serios the person to whom they're sending receives. That, Ross said, allows a sender to get a sense of how many Serios to send to be sure to get the recipient's attention.

"If I see that Jonathan is getting an average of five Serios," Ross said, "and I send 20," he will understand the importance.

CONTINUED: A single currency…
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12 comments

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Give me a break!
I already spend too much time trying to properly communicate with other people I work with and now I have to *buy* their attention?

This is simply not the way to improve productivity.
Posted by adlyb1 (123 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Just need to collect a few more
Sorry about the delay, boss. I just need a few more Serios before I can send the memo to the Moscow office.
Posted by airwalkery2k (117 comments )
Link Flag
You have got to be kidding
If I didn't get fired for suggesting this kind of lunacy, I would the first time an executive didn't get an important email because the sender was out of "stamps".

IMO, in corporate America this plan will fail because cutting off someone's ability to use email would have more serious repercussions for I.T. than cutting off their oxygen.
Posted by rcrusoe (1305 comments )
Reply Link Flag
A cure for e-mail attention disorder?
Seems to me this would take even more time.
Posted by tony kaye (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
complete waste of time
So now I not only have to read the email to decide if it's spam, I have to give some kind of ranking? I guess workers in CA don't have much to do during the day.
Posted by screamforme (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: complete waste of time
I think the assumption is that external SPAM will still be filtered as usual. This scheme would cut down on internal SPAM. It does seem a bit too wacky for the mainstream though.
Posted by freemarket--2008 (5058 comments )
Link Flag
build intelligent email
The number of in office emails can be reduced by adding some intelligence into the msg.

How many emails are sent to clarify earlier msg and to followup because the original msg did not get a reply.

If an email asks a question there could be some automatic responses such as Yes, No, I dont have that info, I'll respond in x hours.

The same kind of answers you would get if you called the person on the phone.

Emails haven't changed much in a decade. There is room for improvement.
Posted by HerbWexler (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Better yet...
Why not simply use good communication skills? Effective written communication doesn't require technological interventions.
Posted by ddesy (4336 comments )
Link Flag
Mind boggling stupid idea for essentiall a non-issue
This is an overcomplicated stupid idea. If people are sending out needless communication that needs to be managed by the people not some dumb idea about virtual currency.

Get rid of spam and then you'll be doing something worthwhile for email.
Posted by aaroberts (82 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yes it is stupid.
I agree. A stupid idea for sure. I get 75 SPAM email each day and it never get off my server thanks to MailWasherPro. Simple and easy.
Posted by ramudd (32 comments )
Link Flag
System down in 3 minutes. Save your work!
This unSerios "solution" doesn't acount for assymetry or broadcasts. There are people who need to send lots of email and there are people who need to receive lots of it. They cannot work with the same monthly allowance. And no one will be able to send important broadcasts with a limited allowance.

So now you need to give different allowances for different people and you're back to square one. This might work for a company of 6 people like the company developing this scheme. In big companies access to broadcast lists is given more according to ties with management or IT than according to needs. The same will happen with "extra Serios".

Now to the idea of making it work accross more than one organization: thisw will invite lots of porn/gambling spam. Just like they do with captcha: present them to real porn/gambling consumers in their peon/gambling sites, they will require payment in Serios to access porn/gambling and then will be able to send their spam in and gain high ranking. So you'll need to do real email whitelisting which you can do right now without Serios. Back to square one...
Posted by hadaso (468 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Cant see any real point but instead creating more work, but alas job security!
Posted by reverse-auctions (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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