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June 18, 2003 4:15 PM   Subscribe

John Kerry joins the Forest Service: In an effort to more effectively manage the increase in the volume of e-mails received by my office and to respond as quickly and thoroughly as possible, I am using a new web based system that you can access through my web site at The e-mail address will no longer be active. Thus we see that the economies of power, access, and influence quickly respond to unmanageable distortions caused by new technology. Will the new equilibrium be any different from the old, or is technology ultimately irrelevant?
posted by alms (15 comments total)
With 27 posts so far today, some unintended relationships may be seen, like:
"John Kerry joins the Forest Service"
and "Lesbian Park Rangers".

We now return to your regularly scheduled thread.
posted by wendell at 4:29 PM on June 18, 2003

Every customer service area has a rule of thumb that says that each letter of complaint actually represents X unhappy customers. X varied a lot from place to place, and if you replaced 'letter' with 'phone call' or 'formal complaint to a regulator' or any other form of comment, it varied even more. People would extrapolate, though, from the amount of correspondence received to general public opinion on the matter.

The ease of use factor for pre-printed postcards, and push button web-mailings mean that those types of correspondence have a very low X factor. Instead of one truly irate person who represents 2 moderately dissatisfied people and 6 sort of vaguely not pleased people, you now have 4 of the 6 vaguely not pleased people getting their two cents in directly. Over time, recipients will adapt to the new modes of communication and discover what X factors they bring to the table and a new equilibrium will be reached.

In the specific Forest Service case cited above, it might have been more PR friendly of them to have continued to accept the mass copied correspondence, counted them all up, applied the low X factor and basically ignored them, rather than publicly making a stand on the issue. On the other hand, perhaps it is better that people be aware of how limited the impact of their actions are, so they can make an informed decision about whether the issue warrants their personal time and attention. Frankly, though, I think the busy lives argument is a crock. "I feel very strongly about this, but not so strongly that I'm willing to waste 10 minutes writing an email, so you can imagine how little research I've done to ensure I'm actually holding a reasonable and educated position, but still, you should take my opinions seriously." Yeah. Whatever.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:37 PM on June 18, 2003

Excuse me. I meant to say John Kerry Joins the Lesbian Park Rangers.
posted by alms at 4:55 PM on June 18, 2003

In the case of Senator Kerry it looks like his people are using that form so that emails can be tallied by issue and by State. Since he's running for president I'm sure he's getting more than just email from constituents in Mass. It is a lot more efficient than having an intern tally things by hand. Individuals can still leave comments for the staff to read but the mechanised bulk emails/faxes/letters become harder to do. It can still be done, but requires the commenters to fill out the form.

With the Park should probably adopt a similar method for input. I'm sure it gets swamped with pro- and anti- email and postal mail. Having the feedback in a database allows the folks to split things out between political issues like old growth logging, and things like "you need more toilet paper in the bathroom at the Grand Canyon." type comments.

What the Park Service needs even more is a PR person that can at least attempt to put a positive spin on things.
posted by birdherder at 5:09 PM on June 18, 2003

Just got this from Fitzgerald today:

As of October 1, 2002, this e-mail address is no longer active. In an effort to provide better service to my constituents, I have implemented a new electronic mail system. Please visit my website at and click on the link to “Contact Senator Fitzgerald” to send your comments and concerns to my office.
posted by gramcracker at 5:26 PM on June 18, 2003

Harry Reid (NV) has been doing this for several months, at least. Sounds like it may be a Senate-wide move?
posted by rushmc at 6:20 PM on June 18, 2003

About 75% of the senate have e-mail forms rather than direct e-mails. This has been true for some time...back in the Clinton impeachment, I started to write to various Committee members, but quickly realized the futility of e-mailing any but my own senators & reps since form e-mails are no doubt sorted by state/zip into constituents and non-constituents.
posted by madamjujujive at 6:38 PM on June 18, 2003

I can sympathize. The barrier to ease of communication has gotten so low as to bury representatives in a truly unmanagement amount of e-mail. As with spam, there's a point where it's just ridiculous. I gather that the problem is not not the ease with which an individual can send a message I gather, but the ease with which messages can be automatically sent on a mass scale. Again, like spam, only instead of going from one person to many, they come from one person posing as many people and go to just one person. It's trivially more difficult for the average individual to contact their representative through a web form than through their e-mail program, the conceptual disaste for geeks notwithstanding. And, of course, old-fashioned methods like the telephone, sending a fax, and sending a letter all still work just fine. Sending a letter is best, anyhow -- it'll be taken far more seriously than an e-mail or a fax.
posted by waldo at 9:51 PM on June 18, 2003

Sending a letter is best, anyhow -- it'll be taken far more seriously than an e-mail or a fax.

And there's something disturbing about that. Why should my message be penalized for the mode of communication that I choose to send it by? If I believe X and you believe Y, should we not be heard and given equal consideration, regardless of how we express those opinions? It seems silly to artificially prop up barriers to communication simply because eliminating them results in more communication--which should have been the goal in the first place. Efficiency is being penalized.

What I would like to see is for an enterprising Congressman to set up a functional and effective issue and performance feedback system on their website. Properly designed, it could prove far more useful to both him and his constituents than any existing system. Of course, if utilized, it would also greatly increase his answerability to those who elected him, and given the current attitudes of national officeholders, I'm not holding my breath.
posted by rushmc at 5:15 AM on June 19, 2003

Why should my message be penalized for the mode of communication that I choose to send it by?
Because mode of communication (X) is easier to do than mode of communication (Y). If people write you a letter, they're generally angry/concerned/whatever about something. If they send you an email, it probably means that they may be a little bit pissed off, but most probably they're bored.
posted by seanyboy at 5:23 AM on June 19, 2003

so what does it mean when I hire a messenger to ride his horse to Washington and present the parchment to my senator personally, seanyboy?
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:12 AM on June 19, 2003

Because mode of communication (X) is easier to do than mode of communication (Y).
It seems to me that the fact that it is easier means that more people will actually be able to take the time out of their busy days to express their opinion. What's wrong with that? Some of us work multiple jobs, or raise families, or work and go to school and have very little free time, but that shouldn't mean that our opinions are worth less than those who write letters. Besides, I'm all for saving trees...
posted by pangmaster at 8:24 AM on June 19, 2003

so what does it mean when I hire a messenger to ride his horse to Washington and present the parchment to my senator personally, seanyboy?

A whole heck of a lot if you call a local tv station beforehand, or better yet, know one of their producers. Welcome to the wonderful world of PR, where style blasts substance into the sun.
posted by wah at 8:48 AM on June 19, 2003

Are they still accepting telegrams?
posted by norm at 9:40 AM on June 19, 2003

Maybe it's not to do with how easy it is to register your opinion using the communications method. (email=easy; writing=harder; horse=really hard). I've been kicking this round my head for a while, and these are the opinion-lets and scenarios I've mulled over.

Firstly, if I was to receive a text message telling me I'm fired, then I'm going to find it more upsetting than if I'd received a letter headed piece of paper saying exactly the same thing. Letters carry more respect.

People are more likely to take more time over what they write on paper than in email, and the opinions expressed are more likely to be better formulated. There are a few examples of emails being sent out of companies which would never had been sent if they'd been written as letters. (I couldn't find any links to support this, but I know they're there)

People can't be bothered writing letters, but they will send (often cut and pasted) emails. Politicians receive hundreds of letters (I'm guessing that this alone is a logistical nightmare), but with email, they'd maybe receive so many emails that they'd be unable to do anything except answer them.

If people are more likely to send email than letters, and politicians treated emails and letters equally, then the opinions of people sending emails would be disproportionally represented with respect to those without access to email. Rich peoples opinions already carry too much weight with politicians, and I don't want to excacabate this fact. (But I do want to learn to spell)

If emails to politicians cost money, (i.e., the same amount as a stamp and a letter), would people still be willing to send as many emails to politicians?
posted by seanyboy at 9:46 AM on June 19, 2003

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