Can we tether email to “the truth”?

“I wish we had trackback for emails.” – Robert Scoble, circa 2006

My source for that quote is Jeff Sandquist, who hired both Robert Scoble and me to work at Microsoft. We are a company with a deeply-rooted email culture. Robert was bemoaning the lack of peripheral awareness that blogging culture had taught him to appreciate. In the blogosphere, as in later forms of social media, you are (mostly) guaranteed to discover responses to things you have written. In email culture there is no such guarantee, and that’s a bug.

I’m always on the lookout for ways to collaborate in shared spaces, and lately I’ve been getting good mileage out of Office 365 and OneDrive for Business. It’s a combination of hosted SharePoint, lightweight web apps, full-strength Windows apps, and sync among my various PCs, tablets, and phone. The pieces have come together in a way that reminds me of the excitement I felt when I first began experimenting with what we once called groupware.

But where email culture runs deep, it’s a challenge to build bridges between inboxes and shared spaces. Yesterday, for example, I sent an email with links to documents in my shared space on Office 365. One respondent advised me to use attachments rather than links. Another argued that links are superior because the reader is guaranteed to get the latest version. Both make valid points. You don’t want to hit a dead link if you’re reading email offline. But you don’t want to read a stale document if you’re online.

Why not do both? Use a link that resolves as an attachment when the email is sent, but retains its identity as a link. If the email is read offline, it functions as an attachment. But if the email is read online, it can function as a link too. Benefits include:

– If the document changed, the reader gets the current version

– If the document didn’t change, the reader knows it didn’t

– When the link resolves, the author sees a trackback

More broadly this idea reflects one of the core tenets of Thali. In distributed systems with copies of things floating around, there ought to be a canonical instance of each thing. “We call it the truth,” says Thali’s creator Yaron Goland. To the extent possible, we all need to be the source of truth for our own stuff, and we need to hold it as closely as we can.

One thought on “Can we tether email to “the truth”?

  1. Great article, Jon! Frankly I’m not surprised people are still expressing an affinity for attachments, even with the prevalence of decent cloud-based collaboration platforms and the superiority of the link-driven model; old habits are hard to change in a corporate culture.

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