When E-Mail Turns From Delight to Deluge

February 9, 2013


IN the not-so-distant past, the chipper AOL sound of “You’ve got mail!” filled me with giddiness and glee. I would eagerly check my in-box, excited to see what message had arrived.

Those days are long gone. Now, when I examine my various e-mail accounts, my main emotion is dread.

One morning last week, I sat at my desk and stared at my Gmail in-box; 40,000 unread e-mails stared back. (That big number is a function of my life as a writer, and of having five different accounts, work and personal.) Feeling unusually invigorated, I attacked the mountain, trashing subscription newsletters and social networking alerts en masse. I typed brief confirmations for various meetings, sent long-overdue R.S.V.P.’s and replied to a few friends who had sent warm notes of hello. In an hour, I worked my way through roughly 100 e-mails.

Satisfied by a morning well spent, I left for an early lunch. But when I returned to my desk an hour later, it was as if I’d never deleted a thing. There were dozens of new messages, each waiting to be tackled.

Frustrated, I closed my e-mail and couldn’t bring myself to return to it for the rest of the day.

It wasn’t always like this. E-mail was once a great tool for communication, one that was less intrusive than the telephone and faster than the Postal Service. Now, even when it works as designed, it’s a virtual nightmare — and, occasionally, an actual one. I’ve had many a stress dream about missing important notes from my boss.

Where have we gone wrong?

Part of it has to do with how stagnant the format of e-mail has remained, while the rest of communication and social networking has surged light years ahead, says Susan Etlinger, an analyst at the Altimeter Group, who studies how people use and interact with technology and the Internet. E-mail is largely arranged along a linear timeline, with little thought given to context and topic.

“It’s become another timeline or feed,” she says. “It goes by and then it’s done. The current model of e-mail feels obsolete.”

She also says that while most e-mail providers are trying to block spammers and phishers from bombarding people, they have barely begun to tackle the problem of social spam — a plague of unnecessary and unwanted e-mail that includes alerts from social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Tumblr.

“The spam problem has mostly been fixed, at least, in terms of what is legitimately supposed to be spam,” she said. “It’s the unwanted e-mails that are so horrifying.”

These frustrations seem universal. And they are not going away anytime soon, particularly given the news that the post office is planning to drop the delivery of certain mail on Saturdays. Our dependence on e-mail is only growing. Indeed, Pingdom, a Web site that monitors Internet use, published a report in January saying that there are 2.2 billion e-mail users worldwide, and that global e-mail traffic has reached 144 billion messages a day.

Some preliminary answers to this digital quandary are emerging.

Google offered its version of a solution with Priority in-box, a feature that tries to automatically identify urgent messages. And Apple recently introduced a “V.I.P.” tag that will push a notification to the user when an e-mail arrives from a previously designated important person. These help, but they are not enough on their own.

Even using both systems, I still resort to keeping an eye on my in-box through the day and jotting down a list — on paper — of people to write back at the end of the day or before bed. It’s archaic at best, and I rarely get to everyone before the day is out.

Of course, there is a regimented, minimalist approach to clearing out in-boxes each day — otherwise known as In-Box Zero — but that requires a level of constant attention and maintenance beyond the scope of my time and patience.

I was starting to consider e-mail bankruptcy — ditching my account and signing up for a new one — until I heard about a new option in the e-mail wars, an iOS app called Mailbox, which promises to change how we manage our mail.

Mailbox, in a way, harks back to an older, simpler system in which you checked your mail — the paper kind — and sorted it as soon as you received it. You read the most pressing letters first, tossed away the junk and set aside pieces of mail that could be dealt with later. The app does much the same thing, by letting users sort their in-box into three neat columns, in a much sleeker and prettier interface than the basic mail clients available for the iPhone or most Android phones.

“Checking e-mail is like performing triage,” says Gentry Underwood, the chief executive and co-founder of Mailbox. “You’re just figuring out what needs addressing at that moment. Anything else falls below the fold.”

The application, which began slowly admitting users on Thursday, isn’t a perfect fix. There is no sorting mechanism to identify urgent notes, and users must work their way through their in-box line by line to sort messages, so it is easy to fall behind. And who knows how long this service will be around — most e-mail start-ups struggle to reel in enough users to compete with Apple, Google and Microsoft. Turning a free e-mail service into a long-term sustainable business is not easy.

Traditional e-mail is only part of the mass of electronic communication that needs constant attention. Many of us face a slowly creeping multitude of in-boxes — including Twitter, Facebook, SMS, Skype, online dating services, LinkedIn and Snapchat.

It’s possible that no technical fix will ever be enough. No amount of clever sorting software or folders will stop overzealous e-mailers who insist on hitting “reply-all” on group messages or on nagging you when they haven’t heard a response after a day or two.

JOSHUA LYMAN, a technology consultant and blogger who recently received a master’s degree in information systems at Brigham Young University, says the main problem with e-mail is a social and cultural one. (Mr. Lyman is not nearly as combative as the fictional character with the same name on “The West Wing” on television.) Etiquette and expectations need to be established, much as telephone etiquette evolved until there was common understanding about not calling too late at night or during dinner.

“It’s not the quantity of e-mails that get us into trouble,” Mr. Lyman says. “It’s the ones that require us to slow down, find the file, compose a great e-mail back. Humans only have a certain level of information processing. We get overloaded.”

Which, he says, is a beacon of hope. We can fix this problem, he contends; we just need to take charge of it. For example, we might try to keep work e-mails brief, taking inspiration from Twitter’s 140-character limit. And we might find better ways to collaborate, so that organizing an outing or lunch doesn’t rely on 10 back-and-forth exchanges.

“We’ve taught people how to use the Internet over the last two decades,” Mr. Lyman says. “It comes down to just that, figuring out how to interact with e-mail so we don’t have as much of an issue with it.”


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