Joanne McNeil - Emotional Labor Extension
Automate your enthusiasm
Joanne McNeil’s Emotional Labor Extension is a bit different than the projects I normally post about here because it’s already well documented. She wrote a fantastic post about it that resonated with me, and I think will resonate with anyone who sends email even semi-regularly. Reading about her anxiety sending personal emails and trying to compensate for the form’s limitations in expression I was reminded of the time a coworker put five exclamation points in a reply-all email to our CEO and a collegue stopped by her desk and said, “Dang, you sounded maaaad.”
I also know the feeling of disappointment and worry that comes from looking at a paltry line or two in gmail’s “compose” window, wondering why my letter looks so bad. I was having such a hard time with the disconnect between how terrible my emails sounded to my ears and how much I felt for their recipients that I actually started a concerted effort to improve my letter writing with my friend Ryan (of Is Ryan At The Office fame) where we vowed to write substantial letters to one another. I found writing decent letters in an age of ubiquitious access (including being able to check whether someone is at their office whenever I felt like it) that I proposed we both buy and read a collection of letters between Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee so we could have something to fall back on for discussion that we weren’t talking about anywhere else. I think it helped, and I ended up really valuing those letters, but I still feel like my emails end up being staid and mechanical far too often.
Joanne’s Emotional Labor Extension is a great project because it takes a problem we’re so familiar with that it’s just become a part of daily life, and makes it novel again so we can look at it with fresh eyes.
Okay, Joanne, now.
Who are you and what do you do for a living?
I am a writer and most of my essays appear on Medium’s The Message I just completed a residency at Eyebeam in NYC, where I worked on this project and hosted a series of events called New Topics in Social Computing
What is the Emotional Labor email extension?
It’s a Chrome extension that works for Gmail. It adds a friendly greeting, changes periods for multiple exclamation marks and swaps out words like “organization” “schedule” and “work” with things like “jk” or “much love.”
I began testing it on famous emails that likely were sent or received through Gmail. So the first examples were on an email from Keith Alexander to Eric Schmidt, an email from Schmidt to Steve Jobs, and the “God’sApstls” threat to Sony executives. A video of these emails before-and-after using the Emotional Labor extension played in the Eyebeam Annual Showcase exhibition.
Can you describe the logic behind how the extension punches up the emails? Does every period turn into exclamation points? How does it decide where to insert smiley faces?
Every comma is replaced with a period and a smiley face follows that. That makes some sentences choppy and nonsensical. Oh well. The text that is swapped in is greeting card treacly like “dear heart” and “hearts and stars.” And yes, every period turns to three exclamation marks.
I made it look fake because otherwise I might start using it. It’s too tempting to have this extension that opens up demurely “I hope you are doing well. Excited to hear more about your projects! [blah blah…]”
You wrote that you made it this way to draw attention to the fact that you find this type of interaction exhausting. Did you find that making the extension helped? Was posting about it and getting your frustrations on the record cathartic at all?
Sometimes I will search my inbox for sentences like “I’ve been thinking of you” and cringe at the number of botched attempts at persuasion, flirtation, and/or forced kindness in what is now over ten years of messages.
And I was thinking about this when a good friend’s wife was in the hospital and I was trying hard to send an email with positive vibes without leaning on weak tea sympathy cliches like “you’re in my thoughts.”
There’s no word like “tongue-tied” when it comes to email, but it is a pretty common predicament. In person, you can smile a certain way, or you can laugh or cry with someone. This project helped me communicate some of my frustration with the limits to language over the internet.
What was making it like? Were you trying to do anything for the first time in order to make it, and did you learn anything that surprised you?
I am not much of a coder and I thought the extension would be much harder to build than it actually was, so the biggest surprise was that I could do it. Well, with help. I mentioned my idea for the project to Lauren McCarthy and she invited me to her Appropriating Interaction Technologies class at ITP with Kyle McDonald. The code began as a quick case study in their class on browser extensions.
I have a few ideas related to the project and will keep experimenting with it. Right now, I’m learning more about Markov text generators and other ways to automate language.
You mention that, “What was once the concern of professional writers is now a burden we all share, as we communicate all day long over email and texts.” But correspondence has been a part of normal life for a long time. Do you think the simple availability of our partners, or the ease of response, has made it harder to compose a longer message? Do you think the form of a “letter” has a place in our daily lives anymore?
Probably my level of comfort with someone is revealed in the informality of an email — lowercase letters, run-on sentences, weird mixed metaphors, etc. But the letter still has a place in my life. I’m lucky to have people in my life who put great care into it. I find that kind of writing much easier and that it comes more naturally than the kind of stuffy formality with professional contacts.
Since you made the extension, have your letters come under greater scrutiny from your pen pals and colleagues?
For a week, I was even more anxious about sounding nice than normally. But since then, I’ve dropped a lot of affectations. I am guessing people now cut me a lot more slack after creating a project/writing an essay about how much emotional work goes into trying hard to not offend people over email.