Is Email Turning Us All Into Spammers?

Tired of wading through a swamp of pointless email, I decided to rank it all according to its usefulness. The results were shocking.

Chris Ritter/BuzzFeed

My name is Jack, and I am a spammer.

It feels good to finally admit it and stop making excuses to myself about how it’s not really true. Here’s the brief story of how I reached this realization.

I had been miserable for some time. Nothing debilitating, just a nagging anxiety in the back of my mind that wasn’t going away. It was a little while before I realized the source was literally in front of my face for hours each day: my inbox. One of the most important and sacred spaces in my digital life had betrayed me. My inbox, which was supposed to be the central place for me to collect my thoughts and projects and all the digital matter that represents my working life, had become a spam-heap. To make matters worse, I noticed that the bulk of the spam was being generated by co-workers, friends, family, and — I’m sorry to say — myself.

I decided to try an experiment to test this theory (and to potentially lift my misery) but I needed the right conditions. As it just so happens, I found them.

I was traveling last Friday, so I missed a day of email. Before I left I very carefully winnowed my inbox down to zero total emails — because I am a freak and a weirdo and a practitioner of the increasingly impossible-to-belong-to cult of Inbox Zero. (Maybe the less said about that, the better. We know who we are.) The point is: I began my flight with a clear inbox and a full heart and returned from a (delightfully) Wi-Fi-less plane trip to a fresh, steaming batch of 100% unread emails that were the perfect laboratory situation for the experiment I had planned.

Out of the 100 or so work emails I had received while I was on the flight, I gave 75 (around 30 of them didn’t fit the criteria for reasons too boring to explain) a value number based on which of the four following buckets they fell into:

• 3: This email requires a positive, useful action/response from me
• 2: This email informed me about something I definitely needed to know about right then OR enriched me with fun/humor/contribution to office culture
• 1: This email is neither of the above
• 0: This email is neither of the above but also just actual spam or a PR pitch (i.e., actual spam)

Category 2 can be tough to classify. At work, for instance, we have brainstorming threads for my entire department and welcome emails for new employees that are valuable to the company even if they aren’t always immediately valuable to me. In general though, it’s easy enough to spot where an email belongs in this system.

Here’s another way of looking at it: What kind of action does each category of email prompt?

• 3: Hit “reply,” or created a “next action” item in my to-do list
• 2: Hit “archive” for easy later reference (and/or whistled merrily to myself or whatever the thing you do is when you are enriched by a fun/interesting but non-actionable email)
• 1: Hit “delete”
• 0: Hit “mark as spam,” or, if I was feeling particularly industrious or particularly annoyed, create a filter to automatically delete future emails from the domain of the PR agency in question.

To clarify: With regard to a 3 I’m not talking about an email that solicits an “OK cool,” or “Got it,” or “Yes, I agree.” Those kinds of emails are often — though obviously not always — an even-worse-than-spam -1 category since they require a response but don’t generate any meaningful action. I’ll stop before going too far down this categorization rabbit hole because there are a million such addenda and exceptions, but I think that clarification is important.

OK. Here’s what I found:

Out of 75 total ranked emails, I had:
• 8 category 3 emails
• 16 category 2 emails
• 47 category 1 emails
• 4 category 0 emails

Chris Ritter/BuzzFeed

Simply put, 51 of my 75 emails were either useless, or less than useless to me. And that’s just from eight (working) hours without email access. Eight of my ranked emails helped me to push a project forward in some meaningful fashion and 16 improved my life in some quantifiable way, like informing me of something I didn’t previously know that was valuable to me. But even lumping the threes and twos in together means that 68% of the emails in my inbox were still “spam” and that 92% of that spam was coming from people I actually work with. Multiply that out over a week or — dear lord — a full year and you’ll quickly get to days upon days of wasted time reading what amounts to junk mail.

I should be clear: My point is not that everyone in my contacts list is a time-wasting jackass; one of the hardest realizations here was that I am personally guilty of sending a large share of category 1 messages to my colleagues every single day and it doesn’t feel like time-wasting jackassery when I’m doing it. In fact, the 1 emails may not even be intrinsically bad emails. They’re fine. If you looked at one of them, you’d probably think, Oh, that seems like a reasonable email that a human being might send.

But that’s the point. And the problem. The current culture of email is fundamentally flawed. Even worse, we accept these flaws without question because this is just how we’ve been conditioned to deal with office work.

I’m aware this line of thinking might not necessarily be revelatory and identifying the problem doesn’t get us any closer to a solution, but my little experiment left me with three distinct thoughts I’d like to share:

1) Every time my brain notifies me that I want to send an email I am going to start asking myself how my co-workers might classify it using my system. Is it a useful 3 or one of those bothersome, insidious category 1 messages?

I’m hopeful that this simple exercise will result in my sending a lot less email to people, and I believe that this will save me time and spare the already overcrowded inboxes of my contacts list without any real loss of value for anyone involved.

2) Over half the problem here isn’t the content of the emails we send, but our habits as senders and recipients of emails. In his (interesting and useful!) book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about our addiction to email as a form of procrastination:

“Take email. When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates with a new message, the brain starts anticipating the momentary distraction that opening an email provides.”

Despite my personal conviction that roughly 70% of email is a waste of time, I still check it obsessively. I’m certain that if I decided to do a similar experiment identifying the trigger both for checking my inbox and for deciding to write an email I would discover that, in many cases, the urge could be traced to a need to distract myself from a particular problem/setback/hurdle. The really nasty thing about email is that it so often feels like work that you don’t even realize that you’re procrastinating by looking at it or by writing it.

3) I was talking to a friend recently who mentioned that a lot of companies have had very successful experiments doing occasional “email-free days” at work. And that, I must say, sounds like bliss.

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