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.