Thursday, April 30, 2009


The Inbox Police

As I've gotten older, and more aware of the unintended consequences of things, I've become pickier in selecting acts of rebellion. I don't curse in public nearly as much, I keep the road rage to myself, and snark attacks (not counting on the blog) are fewer and farther between than they used to be.

That said, I have no patience for the inbox police.

My email inbox at work (hint: it ends in 'edu') strains mightily under the weight of, well, nothing actually, but it's huge. It's well into the thousands at this point – I've honestly stopped paying attention – and it just keeps growing. Although I haven't seen anything formally published on the links between email messages and tribbles, I consider it only a matter of time.

There are those among us who believe that inboxes, like desks, should be kept neat and tidy at all times. And then there are those among us, like myself, who believe that the first group needs to back off.

At least with desks, there's a non-trivial risk of fire, and sometimes things slide around and get lost. (I'll admit to having branded the occasional memo with Dilbert's 'brown ring of quality.') But with email inboxes, as long as you have a decent 'search' function, I'm at a loss to explain why ritualistic purging is somehow a good thing.

Purging an email inbox takes an astonishing amount of time, especially once you're into the four or five figures. That's time that could have been spent doing almost anything else, like maybe earning your salary. It also makes things harder to find, since executing the search function on a single folder is so much faster than doing it on a whole series of subfolders.

A couple of years ago, a colleague who got dragged into a ridiculous legal case asked me, in sheer desperation, if I still had an email he had sent me a few years earlier. I called it up right away and sent it along. Had I faithfully purged everything not obviously necessary, it would have been lost to the sands of time.

I like to think that I'm doing future generations a favor by meticulously maintaining a documentary record for historical purposes. Note to future generations: you're welcome.

This is reason #763 why I like Google. Gmail offers...wait for it...unlimited storage! Better yet, unlimited storage with a rip-roarin' search function! For packrat nerds like me, that's crack laced with nicotine and dipped in chocolate. Add that it's free, and available anywhere, and sheesh. My 'deandad' inbox dwarfs even my work one, but somehow, Google doesn't mind. I find that endearing.

Back in the dark ages, I'm told, the issue was 'server space.' To this I say, pshaw. If we need more server space, we can ^&#%*# well switch to gmail and be done with it. Electronic storage is vaster and cheaper than it has ever been, and getting more so all the time. Email messages aren't getting any longer.* This objection may once have been valid, but no more.

I delete spam, and room-change notifications, and an astonishing number of solicitations for webinars. But I do those as soon as I see them. There's no going back and purging; the 'live or die' decision is immediate and permanent.

It may be partly generational. Email was a fixture of office life by the time my career got going, so I never developed habits with paper that I just carried over to email. If anything, I much prefer email to paper, since the computer can do searches far faster than I ever could. The desk ain't pretty, but the inbox works just fine, thank you very much.

Wise and worldly readers – have you had any dealings with the inbox police?

*I'll admit sometimes longing for the days before most people understood the 'attachment' function. On a typical workday, I get probably 100-300 pages of attachments. That's the real time-suck. Sometimes I think the most important PhD skill I actually use is speed reading.

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