Eighteen years ago, the Internet was an unnavigable wilderness, and few people questioned the difficulty of finding information. However, we all know the names of two people who finally did: Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They questioned the conventional practice of ranking web pages by how many times the search terms appeared on a page. They instead suggested that information should be ranked by popularity, as measured by the number of links that lead to the page. Today, the idea of navigating the web without Google is unthinkable.
Your email inbox is ready to undergo the same transformation that web search underwent 18 years ago. Gmail’s Promotions and Social tabs hint at the changes to come, but they are hardly adequate to address the problem. Email consumes 28% of the average knowledge worker’s week, and information overload drains $900 billion per year from the U.S. economy. We need more than tabs to address this problem. Email must be tamed.
The inbox as you know it is going to be replaced by more elegant solutions, but reforming email is no simple task. My goal here is to outline the roots of this problem, explain how email can be transformed, and predict what we can expect the next generation of email–email 2.0–to look like.
Anyone who works in front of a computer knows that email has become increasingly distracting and time-consuming. One major reason is the rise of “carpet emailers” who use technology to keep your inbox under a heavy bombardment.
Bacn–email you subscribe to but don’t really want or read–is clogging the arteries of your inbox. It is a downpour of marketing offers, social notifications, shipping confirmations, and other messages from marketing automation platforms. Essentially, they are messages from robots. Each time your email client flashes a notification, and it turns out to be bacn, you lose more precious time than you might believe.
Gloria Mark, an associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, shadowed a group of 36 knowledge workers back in 2006 and found that they spent an average of three minutes on any given task before being interrupted or switching tasks. Resuming the interrupted task took an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds. Just think about your own day: How often is email responsible for that interruption?
The challenge is distinguishing bacn from important messages. We know that not all interruptions are bad. A well-timed email might save you from making a critical mistake and wasting hours of work. So my point is that we need more control over who or what interrupts us and when. The aim is to counter bacn with equally sophisticated technology and thus minimize wasted time.
If the goal is to prevent robots (i.e., email automation platforms) from decimating your time, then one solution is to make your email client the frontline against bots and bacn. Machine learning is the way to accomplish this.
Email 2.0 clients need mathematical models that can read the words in email and determine which emails are important or not. They must take into account word choice, frequency, and other factors, and they will have to learn through user feedback, the way Pandora learns as you tap thumbs up or down.
At the very least, email 2.0 must distinguish a Facebook notification from a shipping confirmation or an email from your boss. At best, these algorithms will determine the relative importance of all your emails, much the way Google can rank the relevance and popularity of all information.
The goal of email 2.0 should be to make email clients more like personal assistants than mere tools for sending, receiving, and organizing email. Instead of personally managing communication with robots, we’ll have our own bots that recognize their brethren and get them out of the way. This will help return email to its core purpose: facilitating conversation among people.
Without such innovations, email bombardment will only get worse. No matter how dedicated you are to making email rules and unsubscribing from lists, you’re fighting a war of attrition. You can’t match the firepower of email automation.
Our inbox is a mini Internet waiting for the next Google to bring some order and logic to the way we manage email. At the pinnacle of email 2.0, our software will not only filter bacn, but proactively handle tasks like flight check-ins, subscription renewals, and much more.
Although Google is clearly invested in this issue, it’s unclear if Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, and other email technology providers care. Part of the problem is that email isn’t “sexy”–it’s utilitarian, boring, and dealing with it is seen as a necessary evil.
My hope is that email innovation will return ownership of the inbox back to people. Our time is too precious to spend it hitting delete, unsubscribing from lists, and shuffling old messages into folders. Let’s stop drowning in bacn and start dealing with it.
—Dave Baggett is CEO of Inky Mail, which he founded in 2008.