Impotent email: Is there a clever way to work out what's worth reading?

Social media was meant to make emails obsolete, but we're still at the mercy of our inboxes, says Rhodri Marsden

Michael Arrington, the founder of technology site TechCrunch, described email as having reached a "crisis in communication" more than five years ago. Despairing at the way many people received more emails than could reasonably be dealt with, he confessed to succumbing to "email bankruptcy" (deleting his entire inbox) and called upon entrepreneurs to help solve the problem.

But today, despite predictions of the "death of email" in the interim, we still find ourselves swamped. Worthless mailshots, inane information, pointless reminders and unnecessary cc's and bcc's all mount up to an unmanageable digital in-tray. We're not talking spam; this is email that may be tangentially relevant to our needs, and in many cases we might have opted to receive it. But stacked up in an inbox it can become a stressful burden.

"There was a time about three to four years ago when people thought that social media would take over and email would die," says Dr Monica Seeley, author of Brilliant Email and an expert on email best practice. "However, I see quite the reverse, and if you look at all the figures and all the data you can see that email is still needlessly draining people's productivity."

There are many reasons for email overload – excessive and needless replying, ineffective time management, a compulsion to keep checking for replies and so on. But a huge contributory factor is a failure to prioritise, an inability to assess which emails should be dealt with and which can be overlooked for the time being, if not for ever. People have tried using technology to assist, with varying results.

Years ago some well-meaning soul invented an email header field called "X-Priority", enabling us to mark outgoing emails with a level of importance ranging from 1 (critical) to 5 (barely worthy of anyone's attention). Any email ranked "1" would arrive festooned with exclamation marks. But the system was flawed; it didn't necessarily mark important emails, merely emails that the sender considered important. Widely open to abuse and not even recognised by many email clients, it became largely obsolete. We needed a different solution.

Filters, or rules – a feature of most email services and programs – allow us to exercise some form of control over the emails we receive. A constant flood of communication from, say, Freecycle members can be intercepted at delivery and neatly stashed in a separate folder. As we got wiser, we realised that subject lines featuring the word "reminder" were an indication that we'd already had that information and we could place it lower in our list of priorities. Emails containing the phrase "to unsubscribe" or "if this email does not display properly" were almost certainly mail shots, and we could laboriously construct filters to deal with them accordingly. But the battle to identify unimportant email while senders try to sneak it under our radar is ongoing, and it requires patience many of us just don't have.

Fortunately, there's now software that can help us out, using similar algorithms to the ones that detect spam. After all, if offers for dubious pills can be automatically slung in a spam folder, surely special offers from a clothing store we only used once can be moved to a folder marked "unimportant"?

TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington resorted to ‘email bankruptcy’ (Getty Images) TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington resorted to ‘email bankruptcy’ (Getty Images)
Sanebox was revolutionary. Launched in 2010 as an add-on to Google's Gmail service, it determined the importance of each email based on your past interaction with your inbox. All the email it considered unimportant was dumped into a folder marked @SaneLater, leaving the inbox uncluttered. And it learned as it went along, getting better with time. Perhaps predictably, Google responded by introducing a very similar feature called "Priority Inbox" to Gmail some two months later, stealing Sanebox's thunder.

Priority Inbox is simple, and hugely effective; all the important email sits in the top half of the screen, all the dross in an easily deletable chunk at the bottom. Sanebox, for its part, is now available for Yahoo, iCloud, AOL, Exchange and any IMAP email service, and has additional features to gladden the heart of any intensive email-user, e.g. a SaneBlackHole folder, to which you can drag messages to ensure you never hear from that person again, and attachment interceptors that direct attached files to a storage service, keeping your inbox squeaky clean.

Can we trust these automated filters to work properly? This issue has been highlighted by Facebook's "Other" mailbox, a little-known menu item that sits in the Messages section and quietly accumulates notes from people you're not connected to, and which Facebook presumes are unimportant.

When I was alerted to the existence of this mailbox a couple of months back, I found an email from an American company sent almost a year ago with a very real enquiry about an exciting work opportunity. By allowing Facebook to make filtering decisions on our behalf, we risk missing important messages.

"Failing to prioritise can result in the same problem," says Dr Seeley. "If you're a small business and you don't filter at all, crucial emails can easily become obscured by unimportant ones."

There's other software that's tackling this problem. Mailstrom, an email prioritisation service which offers a free trial for an indefinite period, acts as a front end to your email inbox, neatly dividing up messages – from social networks, from shops and, crucially, from mailing lists, allowing you to unsubscribe from them. "It's important for people to recognise that they can unsubscribe from things," says Dr Seeley. "Many people are worried that unsubscribing leads to even more email, but you can unsubscribe from any reputable online seller without worrying."

Google, for its part, has introduced a new default inbox for Gmail that you can configure in a similar way to Mailstrom, with social media emails, promotions, updates and forums all separated into different tabs. If an email ends up in the wrong section, just drag it to the right one and Gmail wises up. Neat.

Many believe that the primary reason for email being so broken is because no one ever has to consider the worth of the messages they send. In all other forms of communication – telephone, post, fax etc – the sender pays a charge. Not so with email; this has made it the ultimate communication tool, but also the one most open to abuse.

It's been frequently suggested over the last decade that imposing a charge on email sending would help to right the ship, to get people to consider more carefully who they're sending messages to. But when AOL and Yahoo tried charging businesses back in 2006, it didn't go down well.

A few months back, when Facebook tested a system where you could pay to send messages to strangers (including premiums of $100 for contacting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg) it met with a less than universal approval. Yes, you can currently pay LinkedIn to let you send messages to people who aren't in your network – but in some ways this regresses to the X-Priority system that didn't work: the sender assesses how important their message is and pays accordingly. No one consults the poor recipient; it was ever thus, and for as long as email exists it's unlikely that anyone ever will.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Luton - £24,000

    £20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst vacancy with a we...

    Recruitment Genius: Windows 3rd Line System Administrator

    £35000 - £39000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: New Business Client Manager - OTE £35,000

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global technology company ...

    Guru Careers: Technical Director / Digital Director / Development Director

    £75 - 85k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Technical Director / Digital Director / ...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen