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.

“I’ve taken to saying, ‘Email is our personal to-do list that anybody adds to,’” L.A.-based venture capitalist Mark Suster wrote earlier this month. In May the local venture capitalist Fred Wilson found himself staring at an inbox of 800 unread emails and declared email bankruptcy. Rather than go through the pile, he asked people he hadn’t responded to email him again. The growing number of tech investors facing metastasizing inboxes has resulted in the funding of a crop of startups aiming to “fix email.”

Joe West and Julian Gutman, 20-something techies working out of the Flatiron startup hub General Assembly, plan to nix the inbox. “Email is where the phrase ‘information overload’ was invented,” Mr. West said, explaining that Microsoft did some of the seminal research on email and popularized that phrase in the late 90s. “The pain that people experience from information overload is acute because everything comes into this inbox, everything comes into this one place,” he said.

What started as a simple medium has gotten jammed up with uses that no one foresaw when it was invented, he said.

Mr. West and Mr. Gutman are still struggling to come up with a name for the inbox-less thing they’ve been building for six months, but it will display messages in a more intuitive and aesthetically pleasing format based on whether the message is text, photos, a newsletter, and so on, they said, and eliminate threaded conversations and provide “context” for each message.

The entrepreneurs are hoping to release a reasonably polished version within two months. It has to be polished, Mr. West said, because people are highly sensitive when it comes to their email. “If you give people the impression that you’ve lost their email, they will try and stab you,” he said.

There are now scores of such proposals, such as OtherInbox, which automatically grabs emails from newsletters, shopping sites and social networks and shuffles them into their own folders for easy mass deletion, and Paris-based Kwaga, which is developing an application that reads your email and extracts key information using natural language processing.

10 Startups Tackling Email Overload [SLIDESHOW]

Mountain View, Ca.-based Baydin makes the Email Game, which awards points for getting rid of emails within three minutes and subtracts points for exceeding the time limit. Baydin also makes Boomerang, a tool that allows users to schedule emails to send at a later date or have incoming emails disappear and then bounce back into the inbox at a specific time—a tool some of the more tech-savvy emailers use to tame their inboxes. “It’s mostly ‘saved by the Boomerang,’” Brooklyn-based tech publicist Mallory Blair told Betabeat in an email about her “email practice.”

But without electronic stamps, the core problem remains: email is much easier to send than it is to respond to. “I don’t mind getting email,” said Eric Kuo, a 27-year old political operative and student at Columbia University. “I think it’s the official way to communicate.”  Mr. Kuo said he is getting more email now than ever before, 100 a day between three addresses. “I probably add to my friends’ email problems because if I come across something interesting, I’ll often shoot it to a bunch of friends in an email,” he said.

Blasting interesting things to friends doesn’t sound so nefarious. But the cavalier sender is part of the problem, according to Chris Anderson, the New York-based founder of the popular TED conference who recently penned an editorial in the Washington Post on email overload.

“My gut is it won’t be solved technically, that at core it’s a social question,” Mr. Anderson said. He estimates he receives 200 or 300 non-junk emails a day, with usually about 150 of them unread. To deal with them, he employs a “scribe,” his assistant Jane Wulf. “By the way, I think that is a job of the future—the scribe,” he said. “The secretary is no more.”

Mr. Anderson and Ms. Wulf developed in July an “Email Charter,” a list of ten rules intended to reduce the overall volume of email, including “Short or slow is not rude” and “Ending a note with ‘no need to respond’ or NNTR, is a wonderful act of generosity.” The charter, also the subject of his recent editorial, struck a chord, Mr. Anderson said. He pointed out that the charter was retweeted 7,000 times and recevied 12,000 likes on Facebook. It can be viewed and “signed” at emailcharter.org. “A lot of people out there feel that this is a big problem and are wrestling with how to do deal with it,” Mr. Anderson said. “The monster is still bigger than me, bigger than all of us.”

ajeffries@observer.com

Overloaded on email? Check out Betabeat’s new series, Inbox Heroes, with tips from techies on how to deal, or click over to this slideshow of 10 Startups Tackling Email Overload.

Follow Adrianne Jeffries on Twitter or via RSS. ajeffries@observer.com

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!