Too many anecdotes have come my way that suggest a serious social-cultural crisis is brewing. The symptoms include feeling overwhelmed and behind the times. Friends and family offended by one person’s unresponsiveness. Tasks are dropped or not completed. Seething anger is brewing over your or someone’s irresponsibility. You or someone you know is developing a reputation for uncharacteristic flakiness or a tendency to forget. You or someone you know doesn’t do what he says he will do.
These are the symptoms. The results are broken friendships, unraveled professional lives, and personal depression. The devil may care, you say. But it’s not the devil that’s the problem. It’s the people you love and love you who are resenting you and thinking that your life is falling apart.
All of this is a very serious matter, but the root cause of it is oddly mundane: the failure to manage email.
I know of several dozen cases such as this. People with chaotic in-boxes are embarrassed to admit that they have a problem. They try to walk away from it, but when they return, the mess is worse than ever. They begin to resent people who write them, and those who write resent not being answered in a timely way. The situation takes a while to fester but ultimately can end in disaster.
This is happening to many people in a certain age bracket, those who can count themselves among the POP-mail generation. I am among them, so I know the mentality well. Pop mail was the first method by which we received email. Email was an electronic form of the real mail. It was something that “arrived” and planted itself on our computers in the same way that regular mail arrives in our mailbox.
We have an in-box. We have an out-box. If we are really organized, we have folders and we drag these physical things around and plant them the way we file our receipts or bills. And we keep these things. We keep them for years, the same as people once kept letters. We have archives of email dating back to the mid-1990s.
The programs we used were called Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, and, more recently, Thunderbird. Young people know nothing of these programs. They don’t know anything about SMTP settings, outbound mail servers, and the like. Email has no physical analogy. It is nothing more than an electronic communication and should be treated as such. They are messages. They come to the phone, to one’s social-network inbox, and also to one’s webmail account.
But older people like myself have had a terribly hard time switching out of the POP world and into webmail. We resent it when people tell us how old hat we are. We briefly tried some webmail gadget and didn’t like it because it doesn’t seem real or physical. We wonder about security and who can read our messages. So we stick with the POP system, swearing that we will be buried with our email clients.
And yet there are problems. No mail client on the planet was designed to manage the amount of email we receive. No mail client can keep a backlog of 3, 5, 10 years of email. At some point, the thing gums up. It crashes. Our inbox is wiped out. Why? We search the forums. We ask the geeks. No one can fix it, so we start over again with the same idiotic system. Eventually it crashes again, and we curse the makers of Outlook or Eudora.
For some, this system has led to even greater social disasters. The in-box has hundreds of messages piled up and unanswered. These people are so panicked about it that they can’t form coherent answers to questions that people ask. They get angry and others angry at them. Then there is the problem of syncing home and work and travel computers. We get messages on one that do not appear on the others.
We try to cobble together convoluted systems: remove from server here but leave on server there. Get a copy here but if deleted it deletes from both places. It makes sense for a time but there are bugs. We lose things. We should put our minds to it and change our settings in some way, but who wants to fiddle with all that? Down with the whole thing!
But there is no escape. The messages keep coming in: 20, 50, 100, 300 per day. Some are important and most are trivial. We lose the mental clarity to distinguish between them.
Then there is the spam problem. If we use an older client, we get one good email for every 10. We try spam controls but they don’t work well. Or they work too well, and we miss important messages. We know that we can dig through our spam box but who has time for that anymore?
I’m a survivor of this system. I suspected the problem two years ago, and advised people to make a switch to webmail. I knew it was the right thing. Did I switch myself? No. I held on to the POP-mail method, secretly fearing a change. I worried about my archive, my address book, and I certainly did not want another email address. So I kept it up. Finally it became too much, and in one dramatic day, two weeks ago, I changed. Laugh if you want, but it was one of the most difficult decisions of my adult life.
Now I wonder what I was thinking.
My main email is now hosted at Mises.com, which runs a gmail-style interface. There might be other good systems out there, but let me describe how gmail works. It organizes your email the way you actually use it, and in ways you might not even know you use it. It organizes email by date of arrival and then stacks conversations according to the subject. When you replay to an email, the file containing this email is displayed along with your response. When the reply comes back again, the reply comes back and is displayed with the entire history of your conversation.
This is a tremendous luxury that no POP-mail person would think of asking for because it seems too complicated. It’s not complicated for gmail. Now when I get an email that says “yes, please run it,” I don’t have to wonder what the heck the guy is referring to. Now the entire history of the correspondence is right there. I’m ahead of the game.
Gmail includes folders such as inbox, outbox, etc., but these are just formalities. Every email you have ever sent or received is immediately accessible. This is really important for attachments. In POP-mail, when someone says “did you get that article I sent,” you have no idea where to find it. With gmail it is right there.
In terms of managing the interface, you don’t delete email. You “archive” it. The archive is always available through a quick search: name, text, address, anything. It comes right up. Yes, you can tag your emails with a label for even more instant recall but this is not necessary since the search is infallible.
What about the problem of a new email address? The answer is that you don’t have to use it. You can add your old accounts to gmail and forward the mail from your provider to your new address. Then you can send and receive from your old address. No one will ever know the difference. But you will have control over your life again.
And spam? The New York Times ran a story the other day about some guy who is inventing the ultimate spam solution, but as I read, I thought this is sheer nonsense. Gmail has already solved the problem, or at least reduced it to the point that it is not a noticeable problem at all.
What about your contact list which you have worked years to cumulate? Go to your old POP client, export the address in a CSV format, and then import them to gmail. You are done. Your whole life has transferred over.
What about that huge stack of unanswered emails? Forward them to your new gmail address and deal with them that way. You might take an afternoon to put all this together, but the time savings arrives almost immediately. Your email is the same wherever your are: home, work, travelling or wherever. It only takes you a moment to check it. You are in or you are out.
Anyone can get a gmail address. They are free.
You can also get a mises.com address — which is beautiful and wonderful in every way. You only need to sign up at the Austrian Network and post on the forum. You are then entitled to a Mises.com email address. Again, it uses gmail as its interface so you get all the above features plus you have the high status that comes with using a mises.com address if you so choose.
I know that many people are reading this thinking: I can’t stand any more change in my life. I’ve had it with new gizmos. The last thing I want is to deal with email. I hate email! But listen: the reason you hate email is that your inbox is out of control. This is hugely significant these days: it means your life is out of control, and you know that if you think about it.
So hate innovation and email and computers all you want but make the switch from POP-mail to gmail. It will be the switch that will put your life back together. You can then repair friendships, shape up at the office, and end the depression.
Your choice about how you manage email is no longer a choice over trivial gizmos. It is a choice about the whole of how you manage life itself. More hangs in the balance than you know. Make the switch and start your life anew.