The idea of having to respond to anyone who requests your attention probably started with the telephone (we’re leaving people yelling at you out of this today). It was a device that everyone understood would make an obnoxious noise until you stopped whatever you might have been doing and physically tended to it. And the two options you had were to pick up the receiver and give your attention to whoever was on the other end or immediately hang up, which would more than likely illicit another call. That was a century ago and right now, if anyone on the planet punches the right ten digits, they’ll have my mother’s undivided attention. Her only defenses are Caller ID and voicemail.
Where are the people who are imaginative enough to try and evolve this system, you might ask? They’re in a dive bar somewhere with the creators of MiniDiscs and recumbent bicycles.
Today Google announced that when a Google+ user begins addressing an email to my mother, if they don’t have her email address their message will be delivered to the email inbox listed in her Google+ account. In its most simple form, the sender will only see the full name and profile photo of the recipient, and the recipient will receive the email in whatever inbox they have listed with Google+. The popular opinion seems to be that Google has taken a step to jeopardize the privacy, sanity, and control of your mailbox. If anyone on Google+ can send you an email, your precious attention will be exposed, for anyone to swipe away from you bit by bit. This is a terrible idea, apparently, because our email inboxes are already a nightmare to manage, and the deluge of messages is already drowning many, many people, and why would Google be crazy enough to make it easier to drive that unread count higher?
First, let us set aside any technical debate about how this is implemented, suffice it to say that abstracting communication from an address level to a user level makes it easier to delineate between human and non-human communication. This is what has kept your Facebook inbox from becoming a complete disaster, and it stands to make Gmail’s message management more intelligent.
Second, grow the fuck up.
Do we really want to continue living in a world where hiding in plain sight is the primary strategy for managing how people send you email, or communicate to you in general? Do we want to continue to allow the controls on the dominant form of asynchronous communication on the Internet to be so rudimentary? Do we want to continue to take near zero initiative to manage how anyone makes demands on our attention? And do we really want to continue lying to ourselves about Google’s desire to continue refining their expertise at monetizing intention by unifying all the activity on their various properties with a single user identity?
I think what Google has done is refreshing. It’s one small step in the state of the communication art, and one giant leap in exposing how Google values its users.