Towards the end of the Dark Ages in England, monks collected the known history of the world into a manuscript, and then updated it with short notes every year. It’s hard to truly know what the motivations of the people who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were, but it’s fascinating to read through and think about what drove them to write it.
There’s a strong human urge to write about your world for an audience, to make a connection with other people, to understand it better by organizing your thoughts on paper, to grab a little bit of permanence in posterity, to influence events and to spread the word about good or bad news. It’s always been a minority activity, but as literacy and free time spread, more and more people kept first diaries, then blogs and other time-based chronicles like Twitter or Tumblr.
Only a tiny fraction of people online keep a blog or tweet, but almost everyone creates content that would attract some audience if it was shared, it’s just locked in emails. The writers of the Chronicle had to overcome massive obstacles to see their work distributed, now we’ve got a massive selection of free and easy services to do the job, so why is there comparatively little take-up? Life-streaming services like Friendfeed and Facebook’s own feed are the closest to mass-market self-publishing we’ve got, but even those don’t have much of what we write every day.
Part of the reason is the comfort of privacy. Emails can go to a small trusted set of people, and you can have confidence that your frankness won’t come back to haunt you. Blogs are the other end of the spectrum, absolutely anybody can see what you’re saying. Social networks and services like Twitter are somewhere in-between, with the idea of a limited set of friends who can see your content, but without the fine-grained control of email.
I have a vision of being able to right-click in your inbox, and publish the content of a message, either to one of several groups you’ve set up (close work colleagues, the whole company, friends), or the original recipients, or to the whole world. A lot of my email could be shared, there’s technical explanations, status updates and interesting discussion threads that would be safe and useful to make available. Imagine a company where that sort of publication internally was routine, you’d have a valuable resource to search for solutions for so many problems. The really appealing part for me is that its not requiring anyone to change their routine, they’ve already got that content, they just need to unlock it.
The results sure wouldn’t be as polished or organized as most blog posts, but getting a lot more people publishing by lowering the barrier to entry would unlock so much juicy information that’s currently gathering dust. People have shown that they’re a lot more willing to post on web forums and comment on blogs than they are to create their own formal posts. I think the future has to be in gathering together all those fragments into a centralized identity (something folks like Intense Debate and Lijit have recognized) but what’s missing is any way to make email content be a part of that conglomeration.