What I Need From Future Email SystemsThink of your email inbox on the morning you return from vacation. Does it make you sweat? 

We have all experienced the trials and tribulations of the email inbox -- it applies across the board from personal to work accounts. The amount of time spent de-cluttering our inboxes has been well documented.

After a recent brush with thousands of email deadwood that surfaced in my inbox, I believe the solution lies in a combination of individual actions and an expanded approach to the email systems that exist today. 

I reinstalled my MacBook’s operating system the other day, which meant I had to reinstall and reconfigure my private email account. The results? The discovery of thousands of emails that had gathered, dust-like, under one of my addresses. It seems that my main private account wasn't set up to delete my messages once I'd retrieved them via POP/SMTP. The upshot being that all the emails that collected on the server for years came along like deadwood when I made the switch from SMTP/POP to IMAP.

None of this would have happened if I'd configured everything correctly in the first place, but that’s not the issue at hand. I’d be the first to admit that I’m an information junkie -- I take from as many sources as I can. My job centers on communication and getting hold of knowledge earlier than anyone else. I used this as an opportunity to examine the thousands of deadwood emails in more detail, to look at what didn’t fall under “useful” or “interpersonal” categories of email exchange.

Notifications, Not News

The majority of my emails turned out to be notifications, not news. By that I mean things like: messages from my bank informing me that a transaction had been done and that details were available via online banking; messages from Twitter telling me about new followers; Facebook announcements notifying me that one of my posts had been shared someone.

Some of the notifications were useful, others were totally unnecessary. If you don’t deactivate them immediately, they'll continue to clog up your inbox for no good reason. Xing provides a great example: Every time XYZ likes a post on my wall or shares it, Xing sends me an email, but it never says which link XYZ liked or shared. If they alerted me to a comment on my wall, included the comment in the email and allowed me to reply directly from my mail client, then it could be useful. That feature exists in IBM Notes and Connections – it’s called Embedded Experience. And as I said, there are useful notifications out there. I get sent a daily email summary of what’s been happening in the social networks I use for work. It’s a useful, condensed overview that benefits me. Notifications can be an important part of your incoming mail if they deliver relevant information and allow you to respond directly -- if not, deactivate.

Like everyone, I also get a lot of promotional emails. Amazon is just one of the many companies that regularly send me special offers. Sometimes they’re useful, like when they give me information that I think is valuable (e.g. that my favorite author has published a new book). But mostly I find the in-your-face promotional emails downright tedious and now make a point of unsubscribing from them immediately. They’d do much better to send me personalized, high-quality emails (content marketing, anyone?), but that’s another topic for another day.

Social networks are no strangers to promotions flooding my inbox regularly with emails (see Xing above). The messages from groups are pretty easy to ignore, but preventing personal invitations to things like events is not so straightforward. You either have to deselect the option “XYZ can send me messages” or go whole hog and de-friend or disconnect the person in question.

And let's not forget good old spam: dull, uninspired advertising that I may or may not have asked for but definitely don’t want. Your best bet here is to unsubscribe or make a point of marking the stuff as spam as soon as it appears in your inbox. And we mustn’t forget the eternal challenge of your email system classifying as spam messages that aren’t anything of the sort -- there’s no escape from the mind-numbing task of checking the junk mail folder.

What’s Better: Email Newsletters or RSS Readers?

As I said, I’m someone who hoovers up information. Email newsletters were once my information source of choice: They filled my inbox to bursting. 

The newsletter I value the most is the one from IDG’s relevANTS -- it keeps an eye on what I read and where I click in a newsletter, and uses the information to learn about my interests. It then uses that to produce a daily personalized newsletter that contains 10 to 15 abstracts, and I usually find two or three interesting. Not the best batting average and the system could definitely improve, but still...

The other newsletters are more of a burden. It’s hard to find the interesting gold nugget among the reams of information they contain. This raises an important question: at what point will tools like RSS readers overtake email as the most sensible medium for transporting information? Should the information be pushed to recipients, or should they pull it down as and when it’s needed?

Both options have pros and cons. I’m more inclined to favor the “pull” option and have subscribed to and categorized most of my information sources in the Feedly RSS reader, giving me access when I want it. I am aware that notifying recipients by email will -- as a rule -- generate more attention for the source in question.