On December 31, I had 46,315 unread emails in my inbox. On my first day back to work in the new year, I had zero. No, I didn’t spend two weeks replying to all those messages. I deleted them — without reading a single one — and declared what is known as email bankruptcy. Am I a bad guy for ignoring those emails? Or are the senders somehow at fault? Probably a bit of both.
According to a recent study by the Radicati Group, a technology and market research firm in Palo Alto, Calif, people send 182 billion emails each day around the world. That adds up to more than 67 trillion messages a year. That’s up from 144 billion messages a day in 2012, or 52 trillion messages. The number of active email accounts swelled to 3.9 billion last year from 3.3 billion in 2012. New accounts are expected to grow by 6 percent in each of the next four years.
Billions, trillions —it won’t be long before we’re referring to emails in terms of quadrillions.
“It’s behavioural economics 101,” said Clive Thompson, author of a new book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better. “You make it easy for people to do something, they will do more of it.”
Studies have shown that all this email leads to an unproductive and anxiety-ridden workplace, said Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has been studying the effects of email in the workplace since 2004. Mark’s research has found that people who stopped using email at work felt less stress and were more focused and productive.
Thompson said that in the workplace, email had become a major barrier of efficiency. “People feel the need to include 10 other people on an email just to let them know they are being productive at work,” he said. “But as a result, it ends up making those other 10 people unproductive because they have to manage that email.”
A number of startups are trying to solve the problems that come with the mountains of messages. But those that offer the slightest respite are often bought before they become mainstream products. Last year, Mailbox, which made a “smart inbox,” was sold to Dropbox for an estimated $100 million. Yahoo bought the smart email startup Xobni — the name is “inbox” spelt backward — for $48 million last year. And in 2012, Google acquired Sparrow, an intelligent mailbox app, for an estimated $25 million.
Branko Cerny, founder of SquareOne, which bills itself as a stress-free email client, said that technology could help solve the problems of email on the receiving end, which SquareOne does by presorting and flagging important messages, but that only human awareness could stop senders from inundating us.
In the past, with physical letters, people put thought into what they were going to write before they sent it, Cerny said. With digital, it’s send first, think later.
Google sent shudders down many people’s spines last week when it said it would soon let people send anyone an email, even if they did not have the person’s email address, as long as both people had a Gmail and Google Plus account.
Some people have come up with their own solutions to the problems email presents. Luis Suarez, lead social business enabler for IBM, decided to take on his inbox several years ago, and by all accounts, seems to have won. He said he had moved most of his communication to public and social platforms. When people contact Suarez by email, unaware that he is not a fan of that route, he scans their email signature for a social network they use and then responds in a public forum, whether on Twitter, Google Plus or LinkedIn. This way, he says, he can deal with several messages at once.
Over the past few years, he has managed to get his inbox down by 98 percent. He rarely uses email anymore.