Shadowbox zero

February 10, 2014

The other day a friend asked whether the amount of email she was getting was “normal”, and I realised I didn’t even know how it compared to my own inbox; so I had a look at how much email my work account had received over the longish weekend, from the end of Thursday (I don’t work on Fridays) to Sunday night. There were 130 emails, as follows:

  • 28 spam and bounce messages caused by spam
  • 46 automated alerts, reminders etc.
  • 37 mailing-list emails (of which 27 could be deleted with barely a glance)
  • 8 work-related emails not relevant to me
  • 6 work-related emails relevant to me (sent to the team/group, not requiring action from me)
  • 4 work-admin-related emails relevant to me (e.g. about fire alarms, wet paint, fridges etc)
  • 1 solitary email actually sent to me by another human being about the work I’m actually doing at the moment

It took me about 20 minutes to go through these and delete or file stuff (considerably longer than it usually would because I was also trying to categorise them for this blog post).

Let’s have a look at those categories in more detail:

  1. Spam. My University email address doesn’t actually get much spam (though it’s been increasing recently); most of the spam I get is actually sent to role addresses which go to RT queues which I’m watching. So I get a notification of the ticket created by the spam; RT then sends an automated holding reply to the sender; and if this bounces (as it often does) then I also get a notification of the bounce from RT. These are easy to delete in email (much slower to delete in RT, but I’ve more or less given up doing that because we’re phasing it out and won’t be migrating).
  2. Automated reminders. This includes: the output of cron jobs (some also via RT); notifications along the lines of ‘someone edited this page on the wiki/added this file on Sharepoint/etc’; how many views a web page got this week; people who followed my work twitter account; and so on. Most can be deleted with barely a glance.
  3. Mailing lists, irrelevant. I’m on lots of work-related mailing lists, and because ‘IT’ and ‘web development’ are fairly broad churches there are loads of threads which are irrelevant to me; I know without reading the email that threads with subjects like ‘Socket 1155 parts’, ‘Windows Server 2012 – Terminal server’, ‘Dell COA stickers’ etc are not of use or interest to me or my work. Also, most of these mailing lists have regular ‘social’ posts reminding me about regular meetups in the evenings and on Fridays, neither of which I can go to (though I’m sort of vaguely cheered by the fact that they keep on happening without me, as it helps to reassure me that I might be able to pick up ‘adult social life’ again where I left off when my daughter’s old enough to put up with a babysitter or be left alone).
  4. Mailing lists, sort-of-relevant. Then there’s the mailing list emails which are sort of relevant, sort of interesting. The posts about new technologies that it’s useful to stay vaguely aware of; the job vacancies (always interesting to see what’s going, what skills are being asked for, how they’re being advertised); the ‘do you have 5 minutes to test our new site on your iPhone’ requests; the ‘if you do web dev in HE we’d like you to fill in our survey’ requests… a million and one things on the periphery of my job, things I would want to do if I had the time, and none of them take very long, so it’s hard to delete them without a thought. (This zone of sort-of-relevance has broadened enormously since I started working in the area of Research Data Management, because it’s a vast sprawling field which seems to be proliferating technologies and verbiage and indescribable processes as if someone had crossed Professor Branestawm with H. P. Lovecraft. On speed.)
  5. Mailing lists, relevant. I do actually sometimes get useful and interesting stuff from the mailing lists I’m on (honest!): updates and information about software and services that I actually use; discussions about technologies and policies and workarounds; and the occasional bit of nerdy fun and humour.
  6. Work-related emails, irrelevant and relevant. Because our team shares an RT queue (actually 2 and a half RT queues for historical reasons, but let’s not go there) I get lots of emails about projects which members of my team (& closely related teams) are working on. It’s really useful to see this stuff out of the corner of my eye so I don’t miss those important “wait, we’re both working on the same thing here, can we join forces on this” connections, but I don’t need to read it all (especially since the way we use RT — ‘badly’, you might say — means that I also get copied on the emails where people are arranging dates/times for meetings about these projects). Also, because everybody knows I’m a watcher on these queues, occasionally there is a comment that’s addressed to me, or that I can help out with (e.g. on projects I have worked on in the past), so I keep half an eye out for that sort of thing.
  7. Work admin emails. These go to mailing lists so the irrelevant ones (about buildings I don’t work in, fridges I don’t use, mugs which are not mine, car lights left on, etc) already got deleted in category 2. The relevant ones tend to be things like changes to policies for sickness/holiday, information about fire drills in buildings I do work in, etc. (I should mention that I’m on a one-year secondment from a department which has two main locations into a job where I have two desks I can work at, so theoretically I could get relevant information about two different sets of HR policies and four different buildings. That’s a lot of fridges and fire drills and forms.)
  8. Actual email to me. Sent to me as a human being by another human being. This one actually turned out not to be very relevant or useful.

Now, there are clearly places where I could (should) be filtering incoming mail better/differently (NB I’m not asking for help with this), and maybe I should unsubscribe from some of the mailing lists, and I often don’t get round to cancelling automated notifications, and so on. But for me the biggest problem is not filtering out the obviously-irrelevant stuff, but dealing with the stuff in that grey zone that’s not quite relevant and not quite irrelevant, sifting through all the bulletins and the bacn and the bumf. And that’s still going to be difficult to deal with whether I filter it into a separate folder or not, block out time to handle it or do it as I go along, or whatever method you think is the One True Way. Some of the difficulty is caused by fear of missing out, but it’s also the case that lots of the really useful networking connections I’ve made — personal connections, opportunities for development or collaboration — have come from this information penumbra. It’s probably the strength of weak ties effect, and the strong effects are great, but those weak ties sometimes feel like a sort of weak broth of unproductivity, mostly a murky and formless thing that seeps into every crack of time, but with occasional nuggets of tasty usefulness bobbing to the surface.

For me, though, this isn’t primarily about ‘productivity’ or strategies for ‘taming your inbox’; it’s about the feeling that all my communication — and therefore most of my life — is like a garden which is slowly being reclaimed by bindweed. I’m sure I remember a time when getting email was exciting, when every email was from a human being who wanted to talk to me — not just friends but interesting strangers, e.g. people who had found my ‘home page’ (remember them?) and wanted to talk to me about the things on it; but I don’t think any communications medium is like that for me any more. OK, so my work email has never been quite so ‘exciting’, but I’m sure it used to be more focused. Email is awash in automated nonsense, all social media networks are drowning in adverts, paper mail likewise. Where did it all go wrong? Part of it is that I’ve got older — I remember how as a child getting post addressed to me was incredibly exciting, because it was always either a letter or postcard from friends and family, a thing I’d sent off for, or a letter telling me that I’d won a competition (a real prize in a real competition, not something from Tom Champagne); I couldn’t understand why my parents weren’t more excited by all the post they got, but of course later realised that this was because it was mostly bills, bank statements, requests to renew insurance, and all the boring life-admin that now fill up my own letterbox and inbox. And junk mail. I do think there’s more junk now than there used to be, but it’s not even just that: I think there’s more things pretending to be human. Spam or phishing emails pretending to come from friends or organisations that I trust; marketing and charity mailshots pretending to be handwritten, personalised; shops pretending to send me birthday cards… I feel as though I spend a lot of my life trying to distinguish the real human beings from the replicants, straining to see into the shadows. Perhaps the reluctance to filter everything automatically isn’t so much a fear of missing out as it is, at some level, a fear that if I devolve the task of determining who’s really human to something that itself isn’t human, I will become one of the shadows myself.

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Inboxing clever

November 15, 2009

In the process of trying to get from ‘Inbox 600’ (otherwise known as ‘completely out of control’) to something more manageable, I’ve been thinking about what would make email easier for me to deal with. So here’s my wishlist. (Most of this functionality probably exists in at least one email client, or would be scriptable with a bit of effort.)

1. The ability to set an ‘expiry date’ on email when it arrives.

I get a lot of mailing-list email to my personal account which contains offers, “what’s on”-type information, the sort of thing which might be useful at some point over the next couple of weeks but isn’t immediately useful now. I keep it in my inbox as a way of keeping it “on my radar”, reminding me occasionally that it’s there in case I want to look at it; but I’d like to be able to tag it for expiry in, say, a couple of weeks — or when the next email from that mailing-list comes in.

Similarly, at work I get a lot of email containing ideas or suggestions for things that I could do if I had time; I want to set them to expire (or at least require manually ‘renewing’) after a couple of months. If I haven’t found time to do something within that amount of time, then either a) it’s too time-consuming/complicated to do inbetween other tasks, and should either become a genuine project/task and be logged/managed as such, or b) it’s just not actually that important.

Also, most emails don’t need keeping for ever. At work, I keep a lot of ‘paper trails’ in email; if I haven’t referred back to them within 6 months then I’ll probably never need to — but if I haven’t referred back to them in 6 months then I certainly won’t remember to go back and delete them after that time. At home, I keep a lot of confirmation emails from online shopping; I don’t want to waste paper by printing them out, but once I’ve saved them to my ‘admin’ folder they’re basically in a black hole. I want to save them to whichever folder is relevant but also set them to expire in, say, 1 year’s time (very few receipts etc need keeping longer than that). Organisational emails from friends don’t need keeping for ever — I may want to keep the emails where we tried to organise a party or something, but they’re not such works of literary genius or items of such sentimental value that I’m likely ever to revisit them.

(To be honest, I can’t remember when I last went back and re-read an old email for sentimental or nostalgic reasons. Occasionally I grep through my various read-mail files for specific bits of contact information, or for half-remembered words or phrases; but even that’s quite rare. Maybe I shouldn’t be keeping any of it.)

2. The ability to move things from email to other applications more easily.

This is getting better with more integrated calendaring, contacts, task-lists, etc. (not to mention Google Wave!), but there are things that just aren’t easy enough yet:

  • When an email contains dates and times, I want to be able to add those easily to my calendar, with a link to the email. It should be possible to delete the email from the event, or vice versa, or both at once.
  • When an email contains an address, I want to be able to add it easily to my contacts, with the email address, and whatever context is necessary from the email.
  • When an email has a PDF or doc attached, I want to be able to add that easily to a document store, detaching it from the email, but keeping a link to the email. Again, it should be possible to delete email and document in one go.
  • When an email contains a bit of text that I want to save, I want to be able to highlight that extract and save it as a snippet, automatically adding a ‘citation’ consisting of the name/email address and the timestamp.

3. The ability to tag and filter more flexibly.

This is the area where it’s almost certainly me who’s deficient, not the email clients. I want to be able to:

  • manually tag emails with as many keywords as I like
  • search/filter according to the presence/absence of single tags or combinations of tags
  • define rules for automated tagging according to sender/subject etc

Tagging probably entirely removes the need for folders (and is obviously more flexible as things can belong in multiple categories), but I admit that I still think in terms of folders. Ideally the user interface would make it possible for me to set up virtual ‘folders’ based on tags, rules, etc to ease the mental transition from one model to the other.

4. The ability to set automated replies based on sender/subject/time

For example, an ‘out-of-office’ reply to work colleagues during out-of-work hours, telling them that I’ll deal with their query in the morning; an ‘out-of-socialising’ reply to friends during work hours, telling them that I may check personal mail during work but they shouldn’t rely on it and I probably won’t have time to give them a long reply (but they can phone my mobile if it’s urgent).

5. The ability to set different levels of alert for new emails or other triggers

Rather than choosing between a popup alert for all new mail or nothing, I’d like to have, say, an SMS alert when email from my husband arrives in my personal inbox; an audible alert when email from certain senders arrives in my work inbox (as it’s probably important enough to interrupt other things for); no alert at all for emails from mailing lists; some kind of alert when my inbox goes over a certain number.

6. The ability to queue specific emails to be sent automatically at specific times

I want to be able to write work-related emails at the end of the day or in odd moments in the evening, but set them to be sent at 8:50am the next day, so I don’t end up getting sucked into work email exchanges late at night. If I write the email and postpone it, I don’t currently have a way to remind myself that there’s an email sitting in the invisible out-tray. Also, if I’m writing official announcements or questions to send to mailing lists, the time when I get a chance to write the text is not necessarily the best time to send the email (something sent to a mailing list on a Friday afternoon risks getting buried in an avalanche of silliness and pedantry; the same email sent on a Monday morning will get a much more sober and potentially more useful response). Ideally, this would work in close conjunction with my calendar, so it’d be easy to, say, set a reminder email to be sent half an hour before a meeting.

7. Built-in coffee-making functionality

Ideally this would be triggered when the inbox goes over a certain number of messages, or when email from specific colleagues arrives … Well, hey, I can dream. :-)