Jo Rhett (jorhett) wrote,
Jo Rhett

A harsh lesson about disguised important messages

I apologize for the length of this message, but it's worth reading carefully.

After 30+ years of writing e-mail, most of us have mastered the use of the subject line to indicate the importance of the message contained therein. For example, one can easily which the priority nature of the following subject lines:

* Photos from saturday's picnic
* Sale ends next Friday, act now to save!
* Mother has died, funeral is this Saturday

Each of us when reading these subject lines would know exactly how important this message was to us, right?

Then there are two technical reasons why these subject lines work well. One is computer related -- there isn't a single computer mail program, tablet, or phone that shows more than 30-35 characters of a subject line by default. Unless you have changed the defaults, you only see 30 or so characters of the subject. I tested 16 different mail programs available to me to confirm this. And of those 16 programs, only one -- Mutt, a character-based mail reader run from a command line terminal would allow me to change the subject area permanently. I think it's safe to say that very very few people read their e-mail in Mutt in 2014.

The second technical issue is people's attention. It has been tested time and again by the people most interested in the results (marketers) and proven that you have 20-30 characters of the subject line to get someone's attention. No more. Everyone skims onward.

I don't believe this is rocket science. I think everything I have said above is well understood by every person reading this post. If we want someone to read a message, we need to put the important words up front in a subject line, right?

So what if we are trying to disguise a message? What does the following subject line mean to you?

Here are some photos from saturday's picnic and my thoughts. Also, mom died; funeral details enclosed.

Before rendering judgment, recall that in your mail program you would only see:

Here are some photos from ...

It would be pretty easy to overlook that message, right? There is a message there indeed -- the person sending you this e-mail wanted you to miss the important bit, and not attend the funeral. They met their notification requirements, but hid the real message from you.

Now, let's talk about a message I received from a convention which I supported early in their process, and where I would have thought cared about my attendance:

Loncon 3 PR2 now available...

It's the middle of the holidays. I have guests at my house and I'm also covering for a number of people who are taking time off from work. I have received a message which I can read any time between now and August 13th, 2014. And honestly, while interesting to read a PR has never contained information crucial to my enjoyment of a convention, so it's an optional to read anyway.

Hm. Little did I know that Loncon was using the trick I named above to hide information from me. Contained within this e-mail was information I was required to act on within less than 100 hours. After a paragraph about information that was informative and non-essential (could be read within the following 8 months), I have later realized was the following very important text.

You might particularly want to note the following information about hotel bookings and Hugo nominations.

Hotel Bookings: These open on Thursday 2 January 2014 at 4 pm GMT (UK time).

Hm. Very odd. Why was this hidden? If you wanted people to know about this, would you not have sent this in its own e-mail? Or re-ordered the subject line to get people's attention?

I wish I could give Loncon3 the benefit of the doubt, but evidence suggests that this hiding was intentional in nature:

1. No follow-up message was sent to ensure that people knew.

2. No message was sent on other communications media until the time had already happened. For attendees in the US we were sleeping, or busy rushing around with our morning activities to prepare for work when the first announcement with an appropriate subject line was sent.

3. Hotel reservations for every hotel within walking distance sold out within a few hours.

It really is hard to understand the motivation here. Clearly there is a goal to hide the message. Also clearly they wanted to be able to claim they informed people, when people started to get upset. The only logical conclusion was that they knew people were going to be upset about the lack of walkable rooms, and that they wanted to ensure some subset of people got better rooms than others. That subset would have received a clear notification, while the rest of us only received the disguised "unimportant message" notification. Even though I've been a supporter for many years, I wasn't one of the people they wanted to know with enough time to get a room reservation.

So yeah, thanks Loncon. I got your message loud and clear.

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