Too Many In-Boxes

more mail less fun

"Something came whizzing down the kitchen chimney as he spoke and caught him sharply on the back of the head. Next moment, thirty or forty letters came pelting out of the fireplace like bullets. The Dursleys ducked, but Harry leapt into the air trying to catch one."

There’s a b-plan in your inboxes, or specifically in their consolidation and management, and the key may be SocialMedia.

I’m reading the first Harry Potter book to my kids at bedtime. Remember the scene where the letters wanted so badly to get to Harry that they came shooting through every open space in the house? It’s a good visual for the flood of information we have coming into our inbox, the contempt many have for it and the joy someone can experience getting just the right message created expressly for them.

Your home mailbox–the one that’s got your Netflix red envelope in it–is rarely bringing you anything personal except during special events/holidays. Your office inbox rarely empties of those declining rags still distributed in print in spite of  the economic realites. If your Outlook email inbox is like mine, it’s full of disappointments for lower-priority senders (sorry) whose bold-faced salutations remind me they have not been read. My phone buzzes to let me know a direct message arrived from Twitter. And the SMS/Message app has a lengthy inbox–at least these have been read. My Facebook mailbox, once an uncluttered, pure environment of friendly connections and smiles, now buries threaded conversations pages deep as the volume grows.

Sometimes I forget which inbox I received a message and it takes time to cycle through the services–email, txt, twitter, fb and a growing number of small, function or topic-specific socialnets–to discover and recover the interaction.

Armano Visualizes Social Filters

David Armano has content coming through the context of our crowds, not just an editor's selection process.

If email applications were transportation, we’d be driving off the road with intent. It’s a bad user experience made only slightly better by search. Not as dangerous as driving a poorly designed automobile, but hazardous to our health all the same. I’ve been reproached about my email management, as though it were my fault the tool didn’t work better.  “If I just put more effort and commitment,” the logic goes, “I could get my inbox to zero.”

To illustrate my point further, did someone have to show you how to use Google? The iPod album flipper? Even this blog platform from which we’re engaging is intuitive enough to execute frequent saves as I write the post so I don’t lose my content/flow if the browser decides to crash (which it did).

The first time I saw a Mac in 1984 I smiled–it got me out of command-line navigation and green type for something that looked intuitively like the real world. Same with the browser in 1993, iPhone and any number of other innovations that recognized me as a human with better things to do than to serve it. Each of these got us further from code and more into interaction. They blurred the lines between real world type, content and now physics.

I’m convinced a better solution is near. As Clay Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody,” says, “there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure.” I believe in the stronger filters. Already more robust algorythmic filters have gotten rid of much of my SPAM email. But there are also human filters to content: I follow hundreds of people on Twitter and friend even more in Facebook. In my twitterstream and socialgraph they’ve broken news more quickly than any other medium. My “crowd” also has better taste in selecting rore relevant articles in greater quantities for me than any issue of newspaper or trade can offer. This doesn’t completely solve the issues from “too many inboxes,” but it starts to prune the activity in my main channels.

The key may lie in initiatives we’ve heard announced and seen coming out of Yahoo! and Facebook lately, allowing SocialNets into their email platform and other “inboxes” to bring in SocialNets through their “Connect” program respectively. Built into their social platforms are features around what they call “Dynamic Privacy.” That means the system is aware or can become more aware about who you value more in your connections and how. With whom do you share or tag photos? To whom do you forward interesting content and do the click or pass it along? Is that a professional, university or family contact? Do you share common interests? These can become powerful enablers and filters in the context of the in-box.

Facebook, Yahoo, Google, MySpace and others have all announced and are rolling out some version of their “Connect” programs. Many in the Valley have talked about this as a “single-user login” benefit for the consumer and owning the login or attention currency equivalent of “wallet.” It’s like not having to get carded everywhere you go, nor populate more accounts. I believe the single-user login benefit is huge, and I think that it may also be secondary in the long run to helping clear inbox proliferation.

Note: quick word of caution navigating the waters of people-filtered inboxes. The other day I pinged a professional associate who quickly informed me that they weren’t available in Facebook for connecting professionally. You have to respect the boundaries of how people want to use their inboxes, when and with whom.

Will close with this letter for my most bloated inbox: 

Dear email inbox, I’m not trying to be difficult, but you really don’t get me. And I think it’s time we take a little break. We’ve tried it your way for many years with pretty much the same result, now it’s time we try it my way. As of today, I’m taking a break from you. I need some space to redefine our relationship. I’m packing up my closest peeps and taking them with me over to the socialnets; that’s where you can find me if you need something. I’m going to throw away all the news articles, press clippings and stuff you’ve got stashed everywhere, so round-up what you need quickly and store it somewhere safe. 

It’s been a blast. I mean literraly. Most marketers still call you their “email blast.” They carpet bomb inboxes on time with an interesting item at best or with the randomness and relevance of an unwanted advance at worse. You’ve been loyally shielding me from the worst offenders, but my crowd gets me better.

If it makes you feel better, it’s not about you. It’s all me. I mean, you haven’t changed a bit. But I have. I found better, more interesting and related things from my crowd. I’ve grown to trust them and they helped me realize how far we’ve grown apart. I hope we can stay friends or at least professional. We still have all the business affairs we need to deal with. I think with time you’ll find this was really the right decision for both of us. Maybe with time you’ll slim down some, get active and grow in new directions. That would be really interesting for both of us. Here’s looking at you, kid.

From the Twitterstream this week: “Filing a cease and desist… against my inbox.” Chris Sacca.

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