A cure for e-mail attention disorder?

Silicon Valley start-up develops e-mail management system that borrows heavily from the virtual economies and currencies.Images: Handling e-mail overload
Written by Daniel Terdiman, Contributor
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.

Ross and Leighton Read, a Seriosity co-founder and board member, said they intend for Serios to be a single currency, regardless of which company uses them. That's partly because they understand many employees are contractors who work for several clients and who might eventually want to use Serios they accumulate in multiple corporations.

This means that a so-called secondary market for Serios--perhaps on eBay or other venues--is almost certain to develop as the real value for the currency evolves. That's because some people would be sure to accumulate more than they can use, while others would want more than they have.

That's particularly true, Ross suggested, because while Attent is currently Seriosity's only product, the company sees other future uses for Serios such as auctions of desirable parking spaces, allocation of equipment or prioritization of IT resources.

Naturally, Serios have no value and Attent is meaningless unless Seriosity clients have a significant number of people employing the system.

"A tool like this will only be really effective when it's adopted by a lot of people," said Ron Meiners, who works in developer relations for virtual world platform developer Multiverse Network. "Which means it not only has to be useful, it has to be clearly useful, and popular, so that people will adopt it."

Meiners said he believe the system is "exciting," particularly because of the way Seriosity is attempting to help companies organize social information.

For his part, Nikos Drakos, a research director with Gartner, said he sees Seriosity's system as a "novel approach" to the burgeoning corporate e-mail management problem.

"I think it's very well worth experimenting with it," Drakos said. "I don't know that there's enough evidence that it will have the desired effect. And even if there is, I don't know that Seriosity is the right company."

But he, too, said he found Seriosity's system "exciting" and that he and others at Gartner are keeping an eye on the company to see how Attent works out.

Seriosity, which currently has 12 employees, is functioning off of a $6 million investment by Read's Alloy Ventures and is seeking a second round of funding. The trick for the company will be not only to prove that Attent works, but to manage its newly formed virtual economy.

"It's important because this is an economy, and we don't want to have inflation," Ross said. "We don't know what the (inflation management system) is going to be. We think there will be some taxes on wealth because you don't want people to accumulate Serios."

Ultimately, for Castronova, the creation of a new economy for managing e-mail overload is no different than the creation of any new economy. And that's why he believes the system can work.

"Never again will you read the e-mail warning you to take your food out of the company refrigerator by Friday," Castronova said. "It will be forever relegated to the bottom of your inbox, because with the Serio, you can quickly and easily sort the thousands of messages and read only the ones that they really care about--the ones they put Serios on."

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