E-mail Overload? Tips for a Tricked-Out Digital Communications Toolbox
New Column! The term Web 2.0 was coined to reflect the interactive nature of the modern Web, where new tools have emerged to allow everyone—including lawyers—to contribute commentary, collaborate instantly and work digitally in formerly unimaginable ways. In this new Law Practice column, Steve Matthews invites savvy legal technology experts to write about tools and tactics that lawyers can use to leverage the power of the Web 2.0 (r)evolution .
ERIK MAZZONE | What if there was a better way to communicate with clients and colleagues, read the news and interact with friends? Web-based tools can help you get a grip on e-mail overload and much more. Best of all, most of these tools are free and easy to learn—and even a little fun.
E-mail was probably the first digital communications tool you learned to use, and unfortunately, it was also probably the last. Now your inbox strains to hold the volume of e-mail you receive. You try to keep it organized so you don’t miss any client messages hidden among the CNN news updates, listserve responses, and dumb jokes that one friend of yours forwards to his entire address book. But as the volume increases, it gets harder and harder to keep up.
Fortunately, help has arrived in the form of several Web 2.0 tools that provide new forums for digital communications, so that items that used to assault your inbox now have better places to go. Using them reduces the volume of e-mail you receive and makes your digital communications more manageable—and you’ll realize a lot of bonus benefits in the process. Let’s look at five such tools that you can incorporate into your digital life and law practice immediately. Once you start using them, you’ll wonder how you went so long without them.
Use Your RSS Reader
Remember when you signed up for all those news and information updates to be automatically e-mailed to you via RSS feeds? Now you probably groan when they come in. Well, with a Web-based RSS reader, you can banish those e-mails from your inbox and still get the news and information they contain. By now, you probably know how RSS readers work, but just in case: They reach out and gather news and updates from Web sites you select and then store that information for you to access at your convenience. Many lawyers use them to subscribe to feeds from their favorite blogs, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Basically, any Web content you have e-mailed to you can probably be better handled through an RSS reader.
First, many of the news sites that you visit daily can automatically deliver content to your RSS reader. Whether you prefer the New York Times or Fox News, ESPN or the Economist, there is an RSS feed to deliver the news you want. Adding breaking news alerts, headlines, articles by category and even op-ed columns to your RSS reader allows you to have all that news content organized and waiting for you in one place—and that place won’t be your inbox.
In fact, nearly any article that you read on a Web site or have delivered directly to your inbox can be sent to your RSS reader as well. For example, to read the articles in Law Practice Today , simply subscribe to the RSS feed and they will be automatically routed to your RSS reader as soon as they are published to the Web.
Apart from publications, many sites where the content is frequently updated also provide RSS feeds that can go directly to your RSS reader. Looking for a used laptop on Craigslist? Subscribe to the Craigslist feed for electronics postings and receive the newest listings immediately. Regularly read a discussion forum about anything from cooking to cars? The forum probably has a feed that can send the most recent comments and topics right to your RSS reader. Keeping an eye out for interesting new technology and reviews? CNET has feeds for new product reviews cross-referenced by product type, review popularity and recency, so you can pull only the information you care about most.
There is a wide array of free, Web-based RSS readers available. Three of the most popular are Google Reader, Bloglines and NewsGator. All three are free, accessible from any computer with an Internet connection, and feature mobile versions for access on BlackBerrys or other smartphones. The features and interfaces vary somewhat, so try them all and see which one works best for you.
It’s Time for Twitter
Twitter, the microblogging service now used by millions of people, gets an unfairly bad rap as a useless diversion. The fact is that once you understand how it works, Twitter can really be used in interesting and productive ways—including reducing the strain on your inbox.
Twitter users (aka “Twitterers”) post short messages (“tweets”) on various topics and follow other users and their tweets. Tweets can be public or private and can be easily shared with just one person or with a group. Tweets can be read on the Twitter Web site, in a special Twitter application on your computer or smartphone, or in your RSS reader. Active Twitterers tend to see a reduction in the messages entering their inbox as short e-mails get replaced with tweets. So, simply as an e-mail management tool, Twitter can be very useful.
Twitter also allows news to spread with unbelievable precision and speed. Since you choose the Twitterers whose updates you want to follow, you have preselected the type of content you receive. When something momentous occurs in a field that you and your fellow Twitterers are interested in, tweets spread the word faster than CNN on its best day. Over the past year of using it, I learned of earthquakes in China, ups and downs of the DJIA, Tim Russert’s death and other items of national and international significance via Twitter long before I heard of them from any other sources. And all without receiving a single e-mail.
Get a Customized Homepage
A customized homepage is simply a page on the Web that allows you to add, delete and otherwise customize the content that appears on screen when you launch your browser. Customized homepage products feature many different widgets or plug-ins so that you can see a wide variety of information quickly—it’s like a dashboard for your car, only you get to choose which gauges you see.
Customized homepages can display your Web-based applications, such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail, calendars like Google Calendar or 30 Boxes, RSS readers, and office suites such as Google Docs or Zoho Writer. You can also set up your page to display news updates, weather updates, stock market information and other RSS feeds.
In addition, you can organize the page by creating multiple tabs, with each tab containing a different set of widgets and content. You can also create subject matter tabs (such as a tab devoted to law practice management) or tabs based on a given context (for example, one for use at the office and another for home). Shifting this content to your homepage can reduce the number of e-mail subscriptions, updates and alerts pouring into your inbox.
Here again there are many free products available, but three of the best are iGoogle, PageFlakes and NetVibes. As with RSS readers, there are many similarities in functionality between the products. Most of the differences are in the availability of particular features and the look and feel of the interface. I use iGoogle because it integrates nicely with the other Google applications I use, but all three of these customized homepages have a lot to recommend them. (For a cool comparison, check out the March 2008 CNET Australia article “Start-page Smackdown.”)
Start Social Networking
Social networking sites are another great Web 2.0 tool for reducing the demands on your e-mail inbox. The most ubiquitous ones— MySpace and Facebook—initially gave social networking an undeserved reputation as an outlet suitable only for teenagers. But the continuing rise of LinkedIn as a business-only social network as well as the flood of 35- to 44-year-old users to Facebook (the fastest growing segment) demonstrate that social networking is not just for kids anymore. Do yourself a favor, though, and stay away from MySpace, which many commentators have justly labeled an Internet cesspool.
Think of social networking sites as similar to customized homepages, in that you log in to the site to see bits of information that you have specifically chosen to receive. These sites provide a forum that allows members to communicate digitally without e-mail, with each site having various discussion board and messaging features that will continue to drive communications away from your e-mail inbox. They become more valuable as you use them more frequently and as more of your friends, family and colleagues join, too.
More interesting than these big public networking sites is the emergence of tools that allow you to create and customize your very own private network. While you cannot control who joins Facebook, you can control who gets admitted to a private social networking site. These sites have many of the key features found on the bigger public sites, such as messaging and discussion boards, but they are visible only to the members you choose.
The possible uses are bounded only by your imagination. You can create a site for use as an ongoing internal discussion board for your law firm, local bar association or extended family. Or create a network designed only to be used for a finite time or certain event, such as when a group of speakers is preparing for a joint presentation. Ning is the market leader in this area, although competitors such as BricaBox and KickApps are following closely behind.
Move That To-Do List Online
Lastly, many of us keep old e-mails in our inbox as a crude form of to-do list. The thinking goes that every time we open our inbox, these retained messages will remind us of things we need to get done. The problem is that as the clutter overwhelms your inbox, it becomes harder to find current e-mails and you can’t possibly sort through the ever-expanding list of older ones containing your to-dos.
There are great Web-based to-do applications to help solve this problem. Some are stand-alone Web sites, while others can be incorporated into your customized homepage as widgets. Two of the best applications are Todoist and Remember the Milk. Todoist is elegant and simple with an easy interface and integrates wonderfully with customized homepages. Remember the Milk is more full-featured, has a feebased integration for BlackBerrys and also can be integrated into your customized homepage. Both are vastly superior solutions compared to using your inbox to remind you of what needs doing.
In fact, as you can see by now, all the tools discussed here are way better for their respective jobs than using plain old e-mail. Check them out today and start using the right tool for the right job. Your inbox will thank you.
About the Author and Editor
Steve Matthews is principal of Stem Legal Web Enterprises and a member of Law Practice ’s Editorial Board. If you have ideas to share or topics to suggest, contact him at. Steve blogs at www.stemlegal.com/strategyblog.