Facing the E-Mail Tsunami
20 April 2008, adapted from The New York Times
E-MAIL has become the bane of some people’s professional lives. Michael Arrington, the founder of TechCrunch, a blog covering new Internet companies, last month stared balefully at his inbox, with 2,433 unread e-mail messages, not counting 721 messages awaiting his attention in Facebook.
Mr. Arrington might be tempted to purge his inbox and start afresh — the phrase “e-mail bankruptcy” has been with us since at least 2002. But he declares e-mail bankruptcy regularly, to no avail. New messages swiftly replace those that are deleted unread.
For most of us who are not prominent bloggers, our inbox, thankfully, will never become quite so crowded, at least with nonspam messages. But it doesn’t take all that many to seem overwhelming — for me, the sight of two dozen messages awaiting individual responses makes me perspire.
Eventually, someone will come up with software that greatly eases the burden of managing a high volume of e-mail. But in the meantime, we perhaps should look to the past and see what tips we might draw from prolific letter writers in the pre-electronic era who handled ridiculously large volumes of correspondence without being crushed.
When Mr. Arrington wrote a post about the persistent problem of e-mail overload and the opportunity for an entrepreneur to devise a solution, almost 200 comments were posted within two days. Some start-up companies were mentioned favorably, like ClearContext (sorts Outlook inbox messages by imputed importance), Xobni (offers a full communications history within Outlook for every sender, as well as very fast searching), Boxbe (restricts incoming e-mail if the sender is not known), and RapidReader (displays e-mail messages, a single word at a time, for accelerated reading speeds that can reach up to 950 words a minute).
But none of these services really eliminates the problem of e-mail overload because none helps us prepare replies. And a recurring theme in many comments was that Mr. Arrington was blind to the simplest solution: a secretary.
This was the solution Thomas Edison used in pre-electronic times to handle a mismatch between 100,000-plus unsolicited letters and a single human addressee. Not all correspondents would receive a reply — a number were filed in what Edison called his “nut file.” But most did get a written letter from Edison ’s office, prepared by men who were full-time secretaries. They became skilled in creating the impression that Edison had taken a personal interest in whatever topic had prompted the correspondent to write.
That personal touch is sorely missed in the e-mail replies we receive from large companies. Customer service automation subjects a message to semantic analysis to extract its general meaning, then dispatches a canned answer at the least possible cost. It aims to provide a “close enough” reply; it does not provide reassuring words conveyed by one human to another.
We all can learn from H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), the journalist and essayist, who was another member of the Hundred Thousand Letters Club, yet unlike Edison, corresponded without an amanuensis. His letters were exceptional not only in quantity, but in quality: witty gems that the recipients treasured. Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” (Oxford, 2005), shared with me (via e-mail) details of her subject’s letter-writing habits. In his correspondence, Mencken adhered to the most basic of social principles: reciprocity. If someone wrote to him, he believed writing back was, in his words, “only decent politeness.” He reasoned that if it were he who had initiated correspondence, he would expect the same courtesy. “If I write to a man on any proper business and he fails to answer me at once, I set him down as a boor and an ass.”
Whether the post brought 10 or 80 letters, Mencken read and answered them all the same day. He said, “My mail is so large that if I let it accumulate for even a few days, it would swamp me.” YET at the same time that Mencken teaches us the importance of avoiding overnight e-mail indebtedness, he also reminds us of the need to shield ourselves from incessant distractions during the day when individual messages arrive. The postal service used to pick up and deliver mail twice a day, which was frequent enough to permit Mencken to arrange to meet a friend on the same day that he extended the invitation. Yet it was not so frequent as to interrupt his work.
Today’s advice from time-management specialists, to keep our e-mail software off, except for twice-a-day checks, replicates the cadence of twice-a-day postal deliveries in Mencken’s time. His 100,000 letters serve as inspiration: we can handle more e-mail than we think we can, but should do so by attending to it only infrequently, at times of our own choosing.