Civility Check has been here all along

By Richard Thaler

One of our favorite proposed nudges is the Civility Check, a software designed to prevent our hot-headed selves from causing unnecessary email disasters. The Civility Check is the absolute favorite nudge of my co-author Cass Sunstein, whose fondness for it led him to blog about its virtues at Open University last month.

Every hour of every day, people send angry emails they soon regret to people they barely know (or even worse, their friends and loved ones). Many people have learned a simple rule: Don’t send an angry email in the heat of the moment. File it, and wait a day before you send it. But many others haven’t learned the rule or don’t always follow it. Technology could easily help.

Here is a suggestion for those who are able to produce innovations of this kind: A Civility Check that can accurately tell if the email you’re about to send is angry and that asks you, “WARNING: THIS APPEARS TO BE AN UNCIVIL EMAIL. DO YOU REALLY WANT TO SEND IT?”…A stronger version, which people could choose or which might be the default, would say, “WARNING: THIS APPEARS TO BE AN UNCIVIL EMAIL. THIS WILL NOT BE SENT UNLESS YOU ASK TO RESEND IN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS.”

While we’ve been dreaming of a Civility Check for years now, it turns out some people have already been using a version of it. Eudora, the old email program that was owned by Qualcomm (before Qualcomm died ) and has since been transformed into an open source program called Penelope, came with an optional feature called MoodWatch. The feature, which is still available for download online in an old version of Eudora, drew on a rhetorical theory of communication (including punctuation) – plus a dictionary of 2.7 million words and phrases. The program classified emails according to a three chili meter to gauge how “hot” its contents were.

From what I hear, MoodWatch wasn’t always warmly received. Some people liked it. Some found it useless and annoying. Cass and I think that part of the problem can be blamed on primitive technology. A common complaint about MoodWatch was kinds of words it caught – or missed. All the usual swear words, swear acronyms, and anatomical slang prompted three hot peppers. Other insults like pig face, jerk, or nitwit skated through without a problem. The first improvement to be made is substituting software that assesses the message writer’s mood. The Civility Check should be more subtle than an algorithm that detects foul language because it is very easy to send a really awful email message that does not contain any four-letter words.

Another potential design tweak is to allow users to opt-in to a system whereby two pepper emails are automatically sent to a “hot” outbox, to be sent later. A super nudge for three pepper emails could give users the option of selecting five levels of an increasingly lengthy send-to-separate-outbox delay.

1. The message will be sent in X hours unless you delete it before that.

2. You will be sent a warning that the email will be sent. You have to reply or the email will be sent.

3. You are sent a warning that that X hours have expired, and a message asking “Do you want to send that email? How about you re-read it first?” The email would then be automatically opened.

4. The email is sent to purgatory – which is some hidden folder buried in your hard drive that you have to go searching for – and stays there forever unless you find it and choose to send it.

5. Like 4, only you have to pass a “sobriety test” in order to send the email, and it can only be done at 8 a.m.

With a few tweaks, Cass and I think a new-and-improved version of the Civility Check could fulfill its promise.

2 Responses to “Civility Check has been here all along”

  1. citizen coder Says:

    With all due respect, forcing this on all internets users is categorically insane.

    Stop trying to design software that nobody wants. Let the markets decide.

    How about that pesky free speech thing, anyway?

  2. twobaymares Says:

    I think this is a great idea! In fact, before I found it (searching for “civility in email”), I thought, “I wonder if software exists that detects flaming, libel, name-calling, etc. in email.” These thoughts came to me due to someone in our homeowners’ association who can’t control herself in email and resorts to it often, rather than having face-to-face conversations.

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