By Jenna Wortham
In the not-so-distant past, the chipper AOL sound of “You’ve got mail!” filled me with giddiness and glee. I would eagerly check my in-box, excited to see what message had arrived.
Those days are long gone. Now, when I examine my various e-mail accounts, my main emotion is dread.
One morning last week, I sat at my desk and stared at my Gmail in-box; 40,000 unread e-mails stared back. (That big number is a function of my life as a writer, and of having five different accounts, work and personal.) Feeling unusually invigorated, I attacked the mountain, trashing subscription newsletters and social networking alerts en masse. I typed brief confirmations for various meetings, sent long-overdue R.S.V.P.’s and replied to a few friends who had sent warm notes of hello. In an hour, I worked my way through roughly 100 e-mails.
Satisfied by a morning well spent, I left for an early lunch. But when I returned to my desk an hour later, it was as if I’d never deleted a thing. There were dozens of new messages, each waiting to be tackled.
Frustrated, I closed my e-mail and couldn’t bring myself to return to it for the rest of the day.
It wasn’t always like this. E-mail was once a great tool for communication, one that was less intrusive than the telephone and faster than the Postal Service. Now, even when it works as designed, it’s a virtual nightmare – and, occasionally, an actual one. I’ve had many a stress dream about missing important notes from my boss.
Where have we gone wrong?
Part of it has to do with how stagnant the format of e-mail has remained, while the rest of communication and social networking has surged light years ahead, says Susan Etlinger, an analyst at the Altimeter Group, who studies how people use and interact with technology and the Internet. E-mail is largely arranged along a linear timeline, with little thought given to context and topic.
“It’s become another timeline or feed,” she says. “It goes by and then it’s done. The current model of e-mail feels obsolete.”
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