The War on Email

Read Me! Our Inboxes Runneth Over, and We’re About To Go Postal

Flooded with correspondence, tech VCs look for a fix.
email tetris Read Me! Our Inboxes Runneth Over, and Were About To Go Postal

(Oliver Munday)

KELLY CUTRONE GETS ABOUT 625 EMAILS A DAY, she told Betabeat last week. The fashion publicist, book author and reality show star spends her frequent flights to L.A. slashing through notifications from Twitter and party promoters, missives from clients and employees of her P.R. agency People’s Revolution, and communiqués related to her various television gigs. “I also have two BlackBerrys and two email addresses and they all forward shit everywhere, so sometimes I get the same email four times,” she said. “I sometimes contemplate how much time I spend deleting junk emails, and how I’ll be thinking that when I’m on my deathbed, like how many hours or days that will eventually add up to, and it’ll sort of just make me want to kill myself while I’m dying.

“I really am haunted,” she added. “Like this is like a really big part of my life.”

Around December 1964, researchers at the MIT Computation Center sent a memo to the programming staff. “A new command should be written to allow a user to send a private message to another user which may be delivered at the receiver’s convenience,” the note read. Flash forward 45 years, and our inboxes are flooded. Expedia has a 24-hour travel deal. The New Yorker would like you to renew your subscription. Your friend is writing with tears in her eyes that she’s in Paris and has been robbed and would you please send money. Facebook wants you to know that someone liked something you wrote a week ago. Your cousin sent the extended family a link to a video of an a cappella group rapping about Hanukkah.

Those who work in media are especially saturated. Danica Lo, who recently left the fashion blog Racked for a job at Glamour, said she purges her inbox three or four times a year. “After this past Fashion Week, I think I had about 9,000 unread messages,” she said. “And I’m not going to read them. Like, there’s no way, if I want to get on with my life. I went in after fashion week and I selected all unread messages and I just deleted them. I started doing that when I was at The New York Post because it would just fill up and it would just start rejecting people’s emails. It’s hard because every time I do that I probably delete like eight to ten really important emails, but it’s impossible, actually now, to go through and make sure.”

Ms. Lo got her first email account when she was a student at Dartmouth, which had one of the earliest email systems. It was called BlitzMail, and it became immensely popular. “At college none of us would use a phone, we would all just Blitz each other,” she said. “But the email load was nothing like it is now.”

She estimates she gets about 600 pieces a day, mostly pitches from publicists. Her strategy is to read and answer all the important messages as they come in. “I look at the subject line, I look at the person,” she said. “The subject line is the most important thing. Most of the time it will not be relevant to me at all. I get a lot of food pitches and a lot of general entertainment pitches. I just leave them unread. But I try to read all the ones from people I know or news things—like breaking news, anything like that, any really fashion-y press releases. And then I’ll read beauty product releases, that’s probably like my like B-list of what I’m reading every day, because beauty tends not to be super urgent but it’s really fun.”

The never-ending deluge means she’s on email all day—“I’m not one of those people who checks their email twice a day,” she said, as if speaking about some coveted but unaffordable luxury—though she expects she’ll get a break after she starts the new job. “But after about six months everyone finds you again,” she said. “Especially since Condé Nast emails are so easy. Everyone has the same format so it’s easy to guess.”

Not everyone gets 600 emails a day. But email overload affects a large swath of the online population, especially those working in the “knowledge economy.” And even as certain types of messages are siphoned off into networks like Facebook and Twitter, the volume of email is still growing. Facebook and Twitter will email you, for example, if you get a private message on their networks—an email to let you know you have email.

The email problem has captivated the tech world for years, but the discussion is zeitgeisting along with the social media revolution.

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Comments

  1. Mike Caprio says:

    That image is actually kind of an awesome way to gamify reading emails. Although Minesweeper would probably be a better metaphor than Tetris or Dr. Mario… each email could be a square covering up a space on the board, and if you’ve got a prioritized inbox higher priority emails could be algorithmically arranged around mines.

  2. Dr. Jacob says:

    I personally hate getting buzzed all day long with the crap I actually sign up for.  I stopped signing up for new deals, etc. until I found this little gem: http://www.mermailer.com. 

  3. Adam says:

    Great story that illustrates the value of having a real strategy managing email overflow. One area I have solved this problem is by using filters. Filters or rules in (Gmail or Outlook), take your message and created a business rule that automates it. I run 50 or so rules. The most important rule is to avoid the inbox. Keep emails in separate buckets, it will save you time!