My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Email Sabbatical Has Begun

We are packed and finishing the final touches on leaving Los Angeles. My email bouncer is on (with a few remaining loopholes for those who I owe stuff to before I leave… those will close tomorrow). We will then begin driving east via the 10, do the family thing for the holidays, and then run off for a proper vacation in Costa Rica before landing in Boston mid-January. What this translates to is:

No email will be received by danah’s ornery INBOX between December 11 and January 19!

For those who are unaware of my approach to vacation… I believe that email eradicates any benefits gained from taking a vacation by collecting mold and spitting it back out at you the moment you return. As such, I’ve trained my beloved INBOX to reject all email during vacation. I give it a little help in the form of a .procmail file that sends everything directly to /dev/null. The effect is very simple. You cannot put anything in my queue while I’m away (however lovingly you intend it) and I come home to a clean INBOX. Don’t worry… if you forget, you’ll get a nice note from my INBOX telling you to shove off, respect danah’s deeply needed vacation time, and try again after January 19. It’s sick, twisted, and counter to the always-on culture that we live in. But it’s me.

I’ve received a lot of feedback in the last week about my approach to email while on vacation. I’ve been commended and accused of being a self-righteous bitch. I particularly love the folks who tell me to get a Blackberry. (For those who don’t know me, I have a Sidekick and an iPhone.) I normally check email all day long and when I’m in full swing, I receive 500-700 personally addressed emails per day in addition to mailing lists. There’s no way that this is manageable when I’m going away for a month. There’s no way that I could address this much email in the first month of arriving in Boston. Also, I learned ages ago that it’s better to declare email bankruptcy than to fool myself or others into believing that I can manage the unmanageable. I announce my email sabbatical a few weeks ahead of time so that folks know what’s coming. Perhaps I misjudged how folks would take my email sabbatical. Personally, I think it’s pretty rude that folks think that the asynchronicity of email gives them the right to pile things onto my plate like a huge to-do list. But it appears that many think I’m the rude one for demanding folks to wait while I’m on vacation.

I’m also shocked by how many folks are completely addicted to their email. I have to admit that email sabbaticals are very much like a meditation retreat for me. It’s all about letting go. And gosh darn it, it feels mighty fine to do this.

Anyhow, my apologies to those who think I have no right to take a vacation or beg a reprieve from the onslaught of emails from well-intended strangers. I don’t mean to offend. But I do mean to give myself the break that I desperately need in order to come back refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to tackle the next big thing.

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17 comments to Email Sabbatical Has Begun

  • Congrats danah, enjoy your vacation! Compulsive Internet usage must end. Now, I just have to refresh my RSS feeds… I’ll stop after this one, I swear…

  • Personally, I think the pre-declared email bankruptcy is brilliant. Kudos!

  • I actually like the idea.

    Just one question, Won’t people that want to send you email(s) will send them right when you re-open your emailbox, and therefore having the same problem as before (a lot of email to deal with in the first month?). Or are you hoping just because the email isn’t delivered, people will just forget about those emails, or even you? :)

  • jon

    Addiction is an excellent metaphor for many people’s relationship with email — you’ll get to see lots of this at Microsoft. Addicts often at some level want others to be hooked on the same substance, so your ability to “detox” is very threatening … and also because it highlights that their addiction to email is a choice.

    One thing I’ve noticed is a lack of realization that high levels of email cause major stress in a lot of people. Several hundred messages a day is a lot, even if you’re not treating them as individual interrupts. Shutting this off, temporarily, gives you space to think and be … meditation-like, indeed. Perfect for a vacation.

  • As a library director, one of the commitments of my job is to always be available (a wise mentor once told me, “If you organize the place right, they’ll almost never actually need you, but when the phone rings on a Sunday morning, my first thought is always ‘Is it the library?’”). That being said, I have a variety of strategies for minimizing the time I have to give to email when I’m vacationing and it works pretty well.

    In your case, however, I think your email sabbatical is wise and healthy and something that more people really ought to do. What fascinates me the most about people’s reactions, though, is this notion that YOU are being rude, by turning your email off. I haven’t answered my home phone without knowing who was calling in fifteen years — we used to rely on the answering machine and now we’ve got some fancy gizmo phone that announces who is calling. And even if it’s somebody I know and like (like my Mom, for example), if it’s not convenient for me, I don’t answer. I’ve found that over the past few years more and more people have adopted similar strategies with the phone, but when I started doing this, I often got the same reaction. I was being rude because I didn’t drop whatever I was doing and answer the ringing phone. Many people feel the same about email.

    I think you’d be interested in the work of David Levy (U of Washington Information School). He’s done some really interesting writing in this area, stressing that we’ve got to find ways to get away from the constant barrage of information if we’re going to be able to think properly and creatively.

    So have a great vacation!! I hope your example inspires others…

  • When I worked for Microsoft, I learned to tell people that when I’m on vacation, I do not check e-mail. Now that I’m no longer there,vacation still means I do not check e-mail, ever. These e-mail vacations are refreshing. It is good to just check out from time to time. Enoy the break!

  • I think it’s brilliant and I look forward to trying it myself some day.

  • Stefan Constantinescu

    In Europe what you’re doing is absolutely normal. Don’t fret. Moving to Finland a year and a half ago was the best thing I did for myself in terms of personal and productivity gains.

    5 week vacations, 36 hour work weeks, how did I manage before in the states?!

  • Steves

    danah,

    I think this is an excellent approach.

    Speaking to a parallel issue – I am probably older than most here, and only recently (about 15 months ago) obtained a cell phone when I was forced to move to a location where it would have been prohibitively expensive to have my land line installed.

    (I always said that I was not a busy executive, doctor, lawyer, drug-dealer, prostitute, or pimp, and thus had no need of such a device.)

    I have to admit it has some advantages, but I’m not sure these compensate for the susceptibility to be asynchronously interrupted during activities like driving in heavy traffic or dangerous road conditions, taking care of personal needs in the rest room, enjoying a quiet meal and conversation with a friend, engaging in a work-related discussion with an employer, etc. I reject any implied imperative to be continuously available – especially since I lived adequately for roughly 60 years without such “benefits”.

    It is shocking but, sadly, not entirely surprising that you would be characterized as a “self-righteous b*tch”. To my mind, it is, rather, that correspondent who displayed insufferable arrogance and contempt for your fundamental rights of privacy and self-determination.

    Alcides,

    I would expect the effect you suggest to be limited by the countertendency that only those items which were still seen as important after several days or weeks of “cooling off time” would still be sent.

    -Steve

  • The email free vacation sounds great! Enjoy!

  • danah

    Excellent idea – you get full benefit from your break, and others learn that they probably didn’t need to send that mail anyway.

    Let’s make the e-mail break an international convention!

    Don

  • Sandra Schemmer

    How do you do this?? I couldn’t find it on the page.

  • Sandra Schemmer

    How do you do this?? I couldn’t find it on the page.

  • I am a tech geek. For those who are also tech geeks, the best way to do this is to set up a procmail filter that sends everything to /dev/null and sends out a bounce message. You can also use vacation to send that message if you think that your colleagues are more likely to read vacation messages than bounce messages.

    For those who are less geeky, set up your vacation message in your email client and simply have all of your messages forwarded to the Trash. Most likely, you will have to delete your Trash when you return unless your system has a mechanism for deleting anything sent to the trash.

  • SC

    I don’t see anything wrong with telling people that you won’t read or respond to e-mails until a specific date or until further notice, but refusing to accept any middle ground between “obviously not important” and “so urgent you should call my mother” does seem pretty inconsiderate. Maybe it’s because at work I get a lot of e-mails that are important information that I should have but do not require specifica action on my part but there is no way I could contemplate insisting that everyone else save them up and send me a copy when I get back from vacation because obviously they have nothing better to do than think about what is important to me.

    Screening your calls is not the same thing, unless you don’t have voicemail and/or decline to call back when you are available. If your callers know that the ball is in your court then they don’t have to plan to call you again to try to catch you in.

    Would you throw all your paper mail in the trash as soon as you walk in the door on the grounds that you shouldn’t have to scan through two weeks’ worth of mail when today’s mail will soon arrive?

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