The Problem of Email

The Problem of Email.

By Allison Randal

I have a problem, and its name is “email”. Many people have the same problem. Not many have it quite as badly as I do. When I say “my inbox is out of control”, people respond “Yeah, mine too. I spent 5 hours this weekend and knocked it down from 3,000 messages to 50 messages and I feel so much better.” I have over 20,000 messages spread out over 5+ inboxes. This is after I declared defeat 5 months ago, dumped everything into an archive, and started fresh. This is after I unsubscribed from all but the critical mailing lists (Perl lists and internal company mailing lists). This is after spending 3-5 hours every day working on email, and sometimes spending all day on it.

You have to understand, email is the primary means of communication in both my work for O'Reilly and my open source work. When I interview a company and write-up the hot new technology I found, the result and following discussion is email. When I respond to author questions, edit chapters, look for new authors, or develop book proposals it's all via email. When I checkin code or design documents to Parrot, it comes back to me as email. When I review other people's checkins, design proposals, bugs, and feature requests it's all email.

Then there's the semi-personal communications from my bank or credit card company, receipts from online purchases, from my long distance service, from my ISP and colocation accounts. Personal messages are a relatively small percentage of the email I get, and often get buried in the deluge.

Part of it is also spam, though not as much as you might expect. I spend about 30 minutes a day tagging uncaught spam. I spend a half-day (or more) every month or so rescuing falsely tagged spam from the spam folders and deleting the actual spam.

I'm on a quest to eliminate, or at least alleviate, the pain of email. Aside from spam, I can't reduce the flow of email, but with better tools I could be faster and more effective at managing the email I've got.

  • I want spam filtering that works, rather than just skims a few messages off the top. (My O'Reilly account only gets a couple of spam messages a week, so that's my gold standard of spam fighting.)
  • I want accurate complete-text searching across all my inboxes and archives. I want search results that show the context where the search word was found, instead of just the message header.
  • I want tag clouds (or keyword clouds) for each inbox, and keyword lists for each message so I can see categories of other messages related to it. (Using both automatically selected keywords by frequency across my collection of email, and the ability to manually set and block specific keywords.)
  • I want the option of automatically archiving messages older than 30 days.
  • When I flag a message as “Urgent” or “TODO” I don't want it to just change the color of the message subject in my inbox (which gets lost in the sea). I want it to show the TODO messages in a box off to the side of the email window with a quick way to flag them as “done” (perhaps a checkbox).
  • I want virtual views of my email, so I can see, say “all the non-spam messages on all my accounts that arrived in the past hour”.
  • I want graphical views of my email, so I can see where the most unread messages are, where the most storage is being absorbed, or where the oldest messages are, and attack that inbox or folder first.
  • I want all this in a client that runs on my laptop without network access so I can work on a plane or train.

I've seen fragments of these features in existing mail servers or clients, or other applications both online and offline, so they're all within the reach of current technology.

I'll be trying out a few solutions in the next few weeks. Let me know if you have any suggestions.  [O'Reilly Radar]

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