PermaLinkBCC And Social Norms
10:17:20 PM

Pito Salas posted about BCC Protocol - Email Morality yesterday. The scenario he describes reminds me of a sequence of slides from my London presentation on blogging. Those particular slides didn't make the cut for the Lotusphere presentation that Declan and I will be doing in less than two weeks. Pito's post gave me a new angle to think about, however, and while it's too late to re-work the presentation for 'sphere so that I can take a minute or two of precious time to get into it, it's definitely worth a short article.

In my presentation I talked only about To and CC recipients, and how over the course of what you might view as an "email thread" in which all the messages have the same (or nearly the same) subject lines, different parties often will receive different information. After just a couple of iterations it is quite common to end up with two (or more) separate conversations going on between partially overlapping groups of recipients. Pito reminds me of the added complication of the BCC. It compounds the problem because no participant can actually know which recipients have had access to each piece of the information.

Without casting judgement, Pito wonders about the interpersonal deception that BCC enables. When you use BCC, it is because you want someone to know something, but you don't want someone else to know that you passed the information along. Of course, BCC is far from the only way email users can manipulate and hide information flows. Forwarding or printing often serve a similar purpose, and there's IM and the old-fashioned telephone, too, and this is normal business communication. I realize that this is not a very egalitarian view of business relationships, but why should it be? Even within an association of supposed equals -- which is surely the exception, not the rule, in business situations -- trying to uphold an ideal of egalitarianism is going to get in the way of getting things done at least as often as it helps.

Social Psychologists and Organizational Behaviorists, inspired by Norbert Weiner's books Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine and The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, have done lots of work in this area over the past 50 or so years. Don't be fooled by the sci-fi abuse of the word "cybernetics", by the way. It has nothing much to do with the study of computers and robots. Well... except in this case :-)

Communication isn't just about information, and business communication isn't just about business information. Communication is also about relationships, and relationships are complex and multi-dimensional. Every relationship has dimensions related to the status and resources of the actors, feelings, short and long term goals, and many more. The dimensions of relationships are not static, and -- like it or not -- many of them are not open books for all to read. Asymmetries abound across the dimensions of any relationship, and there in no doubt that these asymmetries are the stuff of which BCC's are made.

If, as I am asserting, BCC's and other deliberate steps taken to muddy the flows of information are a normal part of business communication, I am tempted to ask: what does this say about the continuing rise of blogs and wikis in business communication? One of the reasons that I believe that Notes and Domino have little to fear and a lot to gain from the growing popularity of blogs and wikis and all the buzz about Social Software is that the Social Software world is tending to favor simplicity and therefore it is (quite deliberately) ignoring a great deal of the complexity in actual social relationships. In a comment in a thread in my old blog, Phil Wolff wrote "Ruthlessly bonehead simplicity makes blogging popular. Less cognitive overhead." I love that phrase, "ruthlessly bonehead simplicity"! I love it enough that it made the cut for the Lotusphere presentation slides. I thought about cutting it, because it's not something that I can just put up on the screen and pass over. I'm going to have to spend some time on it, and time is at a premium.... but I accept that it is a really great description of what really works with blogs and wikis. It is also indicative, however of an incredible challenge we have in Social Software. Ruthlessly bonehead simplicity, and the open communication inherent in blogs and wikis can give us easy deployment, fast adoption, and effective collaboration -- but only up to a point, because the simplicity of the tools can not, should not, and given sufficent time collaborating it most certainly will not mask the real complexity in relationships of users.

I'll bring this to a conclusion by referring to an article about encryption that I wrote for IBM's Lotus Developers Domain web site several years ago:

Since its first release more than ten years ago, Lotus Notes has been the premier solution for sharing information in a corporate environment. From day one, the developers at Iris Associates realized that for sharing to be successful, there had to be a strong security system in place so that sharing could be limited. That sounds a bit paradoxical, but it reflects a basic reality: users won’t put information into a system if they don’t trust that the system will only give that information to the right people.

Notes and Domino, from the very beginning, have provided a framework and tools that can be used to build collaborative applications that are ultimately better suited to the real complexity of social relationships amongst users. Fitting blogs and wikis into the Notes and Domino environment is a natural way to bring in some of that ruthlessly bonehead simplicity, gaining the advantages that it brings, while retaining and even integrating the richer though less egalitarian capabilities that reflect the real complexity of social relationships amongst collaborators.

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Comments :v

1. Ben Rose01/14/2005 05:23:50 AM

Whilst I too despise the common use for BCC I do use it as a tool sometimes. Most of my business contact use Reply To All for every single message. If I CC my boss so make him aware of a message I've sent he then ends up getting a copy of every message in the entire thread as reply to all gets continually used.
By using BCC he gets a single copy and is never included on the addressee lines for future messages. It works well and keeps his inbox down.

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