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.

Peek Behind The Curtain of VC Funding With Our First Original Web – The Pitch

“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!