Death by Email

by Charles Miller on January 16, 2005

I had nothing much else to do this afternoon, so I installed the latest Mac OS X Tiger seed on my home iMac. Mentioning this probably violates some NDA or other, but I figure so long as I don't divulge anything that Steve Jobs hasn't already demonstrated a thousand times, I should be safe.

OS X's Mail client has been spotlight-ised, of course, with smart folders and impressively fast searching through my 300Mb or so of archived mail1.

One smart mailbox that is included by default is a collection of all your unread messages across all your mail folders. Turning on Mail for the first time, I was greeted with the news that I had 55,000 unread messages.

Needless to say, in the time it would take me to even sort through 55,000 messages and intelligently throw away the ones I wasn't going to read, I'd have accumulated 50,000 more. So I created another smart mailbox of all unread mail that was more than a week old, and with a short, guilty mouse-click, marked them all as having been read.

Then, after making a cup of tea, I went through the rest. Mail is now happily reporting that not a single message of my entire mail archive is unread. I suspect that's untrue for at least 95% of the messages.

The problem is mailing-lists. I'm genuinely interested in the goings-on of the ruby-lang mailing-list, but at over a hundred messages a day, it's simply impossible to keep up with it. I'm genuinely interested in firewall-wizards, but even though it only sees 10-20 messages on a busy day, I'd probably rather read 20 more mails from the Ruby list.

And so on. Before you know it, you've got 55,000 unread messages.

Mailing-lists suck. So many projects rely on mailing-lists, even to the point of requiring you to subscribe to a list before you can communicate a bug, submit a patch or even provide feedback. And every list is mental overhead that you just don't need if you're planning on spending any time not reading email.

And don't tell me how RSS is going to save me from email. I have 550 unread articles waiting for me in NetNewsWire.

The best cure for this particular malaise that I've encountered was kernel-traffic, a weekly newsletter summarising the significant goings-on of the linux-kernel mailing-list. Unfortunately, kernel-traffic is an exception that I've never seen translated effectively to another list: it requires a rare level of commitment from an individual editor, and an even rarer talent for summarisation.

One of the more convincing arguments for wikis has been that they offer projects an escape from email Hell. Conversations on a wiki almost inevitably lend themselves to summarisation as the site's (usually self-appointed) WikiGnomes point people to previous discussions, and act as a distributed force to clean up threads into pages. These post-discussion pages then become a natural part of the project's documentation.

While I was writing this post, 8 new messages arrived in my ruby-lang-new folder. I didn't have time to read them.

1 My work mailboxes are bigger, possibly by an order of magnitude, but testing against them would involve upgrading my Powerbook to Tiger. I don't really want to put a pre-release operating system on the machine I do all my coding on.

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