How do you lose control of an email inbox? "Two ways. Gradually, and then suddenly," as Ernest Hemingway once wrote.
For me, the latter part happened early this year, when I realized I was seeing second and third email reminders from friends or tech contacts I wanted to follow. The incoming flow of email had become so overwhelming that it was pushing down important messages past the bottom of the screen before I could even mentally register them.
The gradual part was years of cherry-picking a few key emails to read and respond to while choosing to ignore the remaining thousands that had little personal or professional value. As my primary inbox swelled to over 110,000 unread messages, they consumed nearly 25 gigabytes of storage, or almost double the space included with a typical free Gmail account. The goal of "Inbox Zero," where every message is filed, deleted or answered, is a laudable and achievable objective for some brave (and well-organized) souls, but for me it was impossible.
More than just spam
As it turns out, though, I might have the right idea. Email, as an institution, may be about to collapse under its own weight. In the early days of the Internet, thanks in large part to the ubiquitous AOL floppy disks and CDs that littered our real mailboxes, email was our introduction to the online world. It's continued to put up a good fight since then, even as the spam overload of the early 2000s threatened to make email more trouble than it was worth.
Today, smarter and faster filters have made spam, if not a thing of the past, then at least a controllable chronic condition. But instead of Nigerian money scams, the avalanche of nothingness now comes from never-ending sales reminders from online shopping sites, daily notifications from Twitter and Facebook, and work and personal threads without end.
Google has tried to control the deluge, but it's only made things worse for me. By adding automatic filters to Gmail, it's only forced me to check multiple screens to make sure I haven't missed anything vital. That's more clicks needed to eyeball the day's incoming email, and the end result for me was that I was seeing even fewer incoming messages.
I knew I couldn't be alone in this email quagmire, so I asked Douglas Rushkoff, author of influential books including "Media Virus," "Present Shock" and the new "Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus" (about using the digital economy to promote prosperity for all), how his email experience has changed over the years. As one of the first digital media theorists -- he coined the term "viral media" in 1994 -- he's witnessed the explosive growth of incoming information over the past two decades.
"On the early Net, you would just log off from your email, and you'd feel energized, not drained. And now, I open up Gmail, and it's just like this assault," he says. "That sense of done-ness is anathema to people who are trying to make money off us. They have to maintain this sense of incompleteness, so that we're continuing to search and wade through this stuff. This sort of 24-7, always-on, frantic, disoriented state, it's almost the object of the game to maintain that."
The nonstop pings, buzzes or onscreen pop-ups that tell us we have new messages waiting are all part of that game. They trigger a heady rush in some people, anxiety in others. Either way, we've been programmed to respond. Rushkoff says, "It's not even like the Freudian-style aspirational psychological manipulation of the past. It's like pure Pavlovian -- this sound, this color, this way of swiping will engender an addictive cycle. How do we get the short-term endorphins to get released without actually satisfying anything?"
What does he think of the cult of Inbox Zero? "It's an obsessive-compulsive thing," he says of rigorously filing every incoming message. "So what are you gonna do? You'd have to check your Facebook messages, your Twitter messages, your Snapchat messages, your SMS messages, your phone messages. By the time you get back to email, it's gonna be back there again."
But when I tell him that I feel like I'm on the reality TV program "Hoarders," and my horde is more than 110,000 unopened emails, even he's taken aback. "Maybe I'm too Jewish, or too guilty or feel too responsible. I can't do that 110,000 unanswered email thing," he says. "What if there's a child in need?"
Don't worry, be happy
More concerned with professional efficiency than hypothetical child emergencies is Andrew Jensen, a business efficiency consultant whose company, Sozo Firm, is headquartered in New Freedom, Pennsylvania. "Some workers get bombarded with emails every day, and their stress level escalates to the point where they begin to shut down," Jensen tells me. "And some are affected by a lingering guilt in the background which gradually builds up. They battle with depression because they feel that they are not doing a good job at their work; they know there are untold emails from customers, vendors and co-workers which are slipping through the cracks."
While none of this made me feel any better about my overflowing inbox, an unexpected deus ex machina resolution may be coming over the horizon -- and from a very unusual source: corporate America.
As I continued to do no more than pick away at a few dozen new messages per day even as the unread email count continued to tick higher, a rapidly growing number of employers are moving to a new email policy that automatically deletes older email, unread or not, after a set period of time, usually somewhere between 30 and 90 days.
Any email more than the requisite number of days old, unless specifically saved to another folder or printed out, simply vanishes into the ether, as if it never existed. That means that instead of taking a pickax to our mountains of unread or unsorted email, if we all just wait it out, years of unread correspondence may quietly escort themselves off the premises.
This story appears in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.
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