Some years ago, very suddenly, I ran into the brick wall of repetitive stress injury. I had to lay off keyboards entirely for a couple of weeks, and wound up writing most of the first draft of my book in longhand on yellow legal pads. I got through it thanks to an innovative keyboard plus stretching and some weightlifting. Nowadays I’m fine so long as I’m diligent about stretching and lifting. And as a bonus, a strategy I developed at that time continues to serve me well. I call it the principle of keystroke conservation.

Although I no longer have to ration my keystroke output in order to avoid crossing a pain threshold, I still find it useful to think of keystroke output as a scarce resource, the use of which can (and should) be optimized. Blogging is a key part of that optimization, though I don’t think many people see it that way yet.

When people tell me they’re too busy to blog, I ask them to count up their output of keystrokes. How many of those keystrokes flow into email messages? Most. How many people receive those email messages? Few. How many people could usefully benefit from those messages, now or later? More than a few, maybe a lot more.

From this perspective, blogging is a communication pattern that optimizes for the amount of awareness and influence that each keystroke can possibly yield. Some topics, of course, are necessarily private and interpersonal. But a surprising amount of business communication is potentially broader in scope. If your choice is to invest keystrokes in an email to three people, or in a blog entry that could be read by those same three people plus more — maybe many more — why not choose the latter? Why not make each keystroke work as hard as it can?

I explored this idea in Practical Internet Groupware, and it’s coming around again now that I’m working for Microsoft. Although the company makes incredibly good use of public-facing blogs, internal communication revolves mostly around face-to-face meetings and one-to-few email. As a remote employee steeped in the blogosphere’s many-to-many communication pattern, I’d love to make more internal use of that pattern.

To that end, when people tell me they’re too busy to blog I invoke the principle of keystroke conservation. Was the email message you wrote to three people possibly of use to thirty, or three hundred, or thirty thousand? If so, consider blogging it — externally if that’s appropriate, or internally otherwise. Then, if you want to make sure those three people see the message, go ahead and email them a pointer to it.

That simple maneuver can have powerful network effects. To exploit them, you have to realize that the delivery of a message, and the notification of delivery, do not necessarily coincide. Most of the time, in email, they do. The message is both notification and payload. But a message can also notify and point to a payload which is available to the recipient but also to other people and processes in other contexts. That arrangement costs hardly any extra keystrokes, and hardly any extra time. But it’s an optimization that can radically expand influence and awareness.