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Olson: Devil is in the emails

Published: Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 11:45 p.m. CST • Updated: Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014 12:01 a.m. CST

The Devil would be big into email. He might even have invented it, if he was taking the long view.

Email used to be fun. My family had a Prodigy email address when I was growing up, and I got my first personal account when I went to college.

After a night of studying, I liked hitting up the university’s all-night computer lab to send nonsensical dispatches to friends. (When I was younger, I could study all night. But I can’t handle the hangovers anymore.)

As the years went by, though, the novelty wore off, and all the fun things about email have mostly been stripped away – today I can contact most of my friends via text message, social media, or an actual phone call (novel concept).

Email has become less useful in many of our personal lives, but professionally it’s still a staple of daily life for untold millions of workers.

And it’s become a bigger drag than ever.

According to a report from The Radicati Group, there are about 4 billion email accounts worldwide, and more than 900 million of them are used for business. The average worker sends and receives 121 emails a day, 15 percent more than in 2011.

I’m probably a heavier user of email than that. I’d try counting one day, but I’m afraid it would bum me out.

Based on my independent analysis of my inbox, which contains about 6,000 emails at any given time, here’s where it comes from:

• 25 percent – Ways to fix or enlarge the male anatomy, how to lose weight without exercising or changing your diet, and solicitations from overseas businessmen who want to deposit $500 million in my bank account. Plus there’s the ones written in Chinese. I can only imagine the whoppers they’re telling.

20 percent – Work-related emails that are timely and require some kind of response or action from me. I am so all over these.

15 percent – Organizations whose mail lists I ended up on years ago, from which I have tried and failed to unsubscribe.

10 percent – Work-related items that are sent to me along with 100 other people because it doesn’t cost anything and there’s a chance it will matter to me. I try to scan these.

8 percent – Notes I’ve saved for months on the off chance I’ll be asked, “Did you get that email I sent back in February?” Oh, no. I deleted it last week because my inbox was full.

5 percent – Notices from social networking sites informing me that there has been a retweet, work anniversary or just that people are looking at stuff on there, and so I should probably buy something from them.

4 percent – People complaining politely. Please accept my apology.

• 3 percent – Items marked “urgent” that turn out to be about something happening two weeks from now.

2 percent – People complaining while calling me an idiot. They’re usually much nicer if I call on the phone to apologize.

2 percent – Lengthy back-and-forth discussions among coworkers that should have been phone conversations, but instead play out over a chain of 10 to 15 emails, of which I receive copies. They usually end with someone saying, “let’s discuss this more later.”

2 percent – Crackpots who write about extreme political beliefs or how Barack Obama is really Elvis Presley (they make the same hand gestures!).

1 percent – Emails whose contents are impossible to discern from the subject line: “The DTL links with WOR. Bazinga!”

1 percent – News releases from public relations people who later will call and say: “Did you get my email?” Yes. I was hoping you’d call so I could tell you how much I liked it.

1 percent – Mysterious mass emails telling me to go to alcohol rehab with subjects like “Reclaim a normal life.” Stop it. You’re giving me a complex.

1 percent – Auto-reply emails telling me that the auto-reply email sent from my account while I was on vacation could not be delivered to whatever automated account was sending me press releases from which I have been unable to unsubscribe. These are the most worthless emails ever, perhaps. An email no one sent, to an address where no one received it, and no one else sends a notice that no one reads.

I will not act as though I am not part of the problem. I’m a creature of the system. I have long lists of people that I can blast with email if the feeling grabs me.

I have done so without so much as a shred of remorse. Sometimes there’s simply not time to sit down with people and talk to them face-to-face, even though that’s usually preferable.

Email might be a low form of communication, but it’s also quick and relatively painless to send out. It’s the sorting through all of it, processing and prioritizing the hundreds of messages to determine which data matters and which doesn’t, that can be headache-inducing.

Sometimes, there’s so much mail coming in that I miss things.

A pair of software developers from San Francisco, Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein, are working on a venture that could make email much less important in our work lives.

“We are trying to make all the soul-sucking work that comes with email go away,” Rosenstein told The Associated Press in a story that appeared on page A2 of the July 30 issue of the Daily Chronicle. “This came out of a deep, heartfelt pain that Dustin and I were experiencing, along with just about everyone around us.”

I hope that they can actually solve this problem and create a platform that beats out email. I really do like to get correspondence from readers, and being able to quickly dash off notes to multiple coworkers about important matters is handy.

It’s all the other junk that comes along with it that makes email such an unwieldy tool at times.

If the day comes where I can correspond with coworkers, readers and others in the public without sidestroking through a river of spam and irrelevant missives from strangers, I’ll celebrate.

Until then, feel free to write me any time. My inbox is open to all. Except for you, Mr. European Union Lottery Official. I didn’t enter, and even if I had, I know I wouldn’t win.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email him at eolson@shawmedia.com (everyone else does), or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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