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 inbox, excited to see what message had arrived.
Those days are long gone. Now, when I examine my various email accounts, my main emotion is dread.
One morning last week, I sat at my desk and stared at my Gmail inbox; 40,000 unread emails 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 RSVPs and replied to a few friends who had sent warm notes of hello. In an hour, I worked my way through roughly 100 emails.
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.
It wasn’t always like this. Email was once a great tool for communication, one that was less intrusive than the telephone and faster than the Postal Service.
Where have we gone wrong?
Part of it has to do with how stagnant the format of email has remained, while the rest of communication and social networking has surged light years ahead, says Susan Etlinger, an analyst at Altimeter Group, who studies how people use and interact with technology and the Internet. Email is largely arranged along a linear timeline, with little thought given to context and topic.
She also says that while most email 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 email that includes alerts from social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Tumblr.
Some preliminary answers to this digital quandary are emerging.
Google offered its version of a solution with Priority inbox, a feature that tries to automatically identify urgent messages. And Apple recently introduced a “VIP" tag that will push a notification to the user when an email 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 inbox through the day and jotting down a list — on paper — of people to write back. 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 inboxes each day — otherwise known as Inbox Zero — but that requires a level of constant attention and maintenance beyond the scope of my time and patience.
I was starting to consider email bankruptcy — ditching my account and signing up for a new one — until I heard about a new option in the email wars, an iOS app called Mailbox, which promises to change how we manage our mail.
The app lets users sort their inbox into three neat columns, in a much sleeker and prettier interface than the basic mail clients available for the iPhone or most Android phones.
It’s possible that no technical fix will ever be enough. No amount of clever sorting software or folders will stop overzealous emailers 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 email is a social and cultural one. “It’s not the quantity of emails that get us into trouble," Lyman said. “It’s the ones that require us to slow down, find the file, compose a great email 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 emails 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.