Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: We Need More Low-Stakes Rules for Internet Conduct

A person has a left hand on a laptop keyboard with Slack open, and a right hand holds a smartphone with Slack open.
Should that Slack be an email? Austin Distel/Unsplash

Sign up to receive the Future Tense newsletter every other Saturday.

We need more rules on the internet.

I’m not talking about regulation or liability or online civility or anything important and big-picture like that.

I’m talking about the absolute least consequential parts of the internet possible. Specifically, things like when to send a Slack or text and when to send an email.

To me, the rule there is obvious: Send a Slack for a time-sensitive question or for chitchat. Send an email for anything that I can get back to you on later, especially if it’s going to require a certain amount of brainstorming or research. If you send me a Slack that asks me to come up with a new idea or asks me for my reaction to a document, I’m going to see the notification, tell myself I’m going to think about it for a minute before returning to it, and then promptly forget. Once that notification is cleared, so is my mind.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

And yes, I know there are ways to handle this: I can send reminders, I can check the DMs tab. I could write things down with a fountain pen in a charming notebook. But like many people, I use my email inbox as a to-do list. Once I’ve handled the email, I archive it; until then, it lives in my inbox, constantly reminding me that I owe someone a response.

This is part of a greater challenge, of course, about figuring out how to reach out to someone, through which portal. There are communications methods that seemingly require the recipient to snap to—like a text sent outside of office hours—and there are ways that say, “I know I’m asking you to do something, but it  can wait for a bit,” like an email. Like Slack vs. email, deciding which portal to use—whether to text or DM on Twitter or write a letter or call or, hell, send a telegram—requires us to think, “Am I sending this in the way that’s most convenient for me, or in the way that will work best for them?” (My former Slate colleague Tim Noah wrote in 2016 that you should only call a person without at least a heads up if you’ve seen them naked.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

Philosophizing about the overwhelming number of ways we can contact one another aside, “immediate vs. longer-term” is so clearly the best way to determine what warrants a Slack vs. an email. But I am constantly astounded that other people fail to acknowledge the superiority of this approach. And it’s made me wonder: What rules do other people have that I unknowingly and regularly violate?

If you were the boss of internet behavior—and again, we are talking about the lowest-stakes stuff, not fixing Facebook or solving the broadband internet crisis—what rules would you impose on the rest of us? The more quotidian, the better. Tweet them to @FutureTenseNow (and, if you don’t already, follow us!), and I’ll post the best ones soon.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Here are stories from the recent past of Future Tense.

Future Tense Recommends

It’s the time of the year when we all want to be a little spooked. So I was engrossed by Catherine House, a Gothic literary thriller set in the ’90s. At Catherine House, an exclusive college, students are expected to completely leave behind their previous lives—there are no visits to family and everyone wears uniforms. There are also news reports about strange scientific experiments carried out by and on students. But alumni also go on to do great things. Our main character, Ines, is eager to leave behind her own life, so the school’s ’s oddities seem fine—until her roommate runs into trouble.

What Next: TBD

On this week’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary talks to the Washington Post’s Drew Harwell about how a new generation of hacktivists have stolen and released data from Twitch, the web hosting service Epik, and more. Last week, Lizzie and Jeff Horwitz of the Wall Street Journal talked about the Facebook whistleblower and whether this latest round of scandals about the original social network will create any kind of lasting change.

Upcoming Events

On Wednesday, Oct. 27, at 1 p.m. Eastern, join Future Tense and New America’s Fellows Program as Bartow J. Elmore discusses his new book, Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future with Pulitzer Prize winner Marcia Chatelain. RSVP here.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.