The Mythical-Mail Client and a Plan for Email

If it's broken, fix it

I receive a lot of email. I send even more. I'll go so far as to say that I send too much mail. While I'm confessing, let's get it all out in the open: these days I spend more time in my email editor than I do writing code. When I'm not writing email I'm in IRC, GTalk, and the like communicating in other ways. And it's not something I'm planning to give-up any time soon.

Recently I made a mistake and took four days off answering mail. I had good reasons. But the reasons don't matter, because when I came back to my inbox on day five, I was completely buried. I'm not talking about spam, either. This was all "good" email, from people I know, from people I want emailing me.

Like any good procrastinator, I did the only logical thing I could and spent the day writing this essay instead of clearing the backlog.

I think email can be fixed. Here goes.

Email Bankruptcy Won't Work

Lots of people have tried it, lots of people talk of doing it:

Copyright wonk (and Wired columnist) Lawrence Lessig hit upon a novel tactic after spending 80 hours trying to clear out his backlogged inbox: surrender. "Bankruptcy is now my only option," he wrote in a mass message to his correspondence creditors.

It still happens regularly. I read the blog of someone I know just the other morning, promising herself to go on an information diet. I'm going to save her the pain: diets don't work. You gain it all back later (and then some) because you can't sustain the lifestyle. Similarly, bankruptcy won't fix your credit problems long term: you might not be in debt today, but there's always tomorrow and no-money-down calleth.

The Bankruptcy Diet Pebble Metaphor

If email bankruptcy actually worked, I wouldn't be writing this now. Instead, I'd be emailing Lawrence Lessig to chat about all the things I want to discuss with him. But it doesn't work. Obviously I don't know for sure--I haven't emailed him to ask. But I suspect Lessig's inbox looks a lot like every other Internet-savvy person I know--out of control.

A few weeks ago, there was a great post on 43 Folders updating the bankruptcy metaphor with pebbles:

Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn’t take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that’s taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can’t handle that one tiny thing. “What ‘pile’? It’s just a fucking pebble!”

I loved this when I read it. Like many people I know, I laughed out loud and quickly forwarded it to a bunch of other people--"Thanks for the 'pebble', Dave!" Sorry.

Focusing on the Pile

As much as I like it, I think there's something flawed about this pebble metaphor. Let me clarify: I know that this is an accurate description of the way things are now. What I want to say is that it shouldn't be so.

If we take the pebble metaphor a little further, we need to talk about what happens just before I give the pebble to the other. If I'm going to hand you a pebble, I need to be standing close enough that the exchange can take place hand-to-hand. If I'm that close to you, surely I can see the pile of pebbles that you already have. My pebble, then, gains a context, and I am no longer simply "giving you a pebble" but "adding to your pile."

With this knowledge available, I might choose to delay giving you my pebble. I might give it to someone else instead. I might choose not to give it at all. Or, I might decide that my pebble is of such incredible quality and worth that you'll be pleased to receive it, despite your pile (most of the mail I write falls into this last category).

In short, I'll be able to make a better decision about the "gift of the pebble" if I can see the size of your "pile".

The Mountain comes to Mohammad

This criticism is not of 43 Folders, but of RFC2822. Email, as it exists today, is a pebble. I can't see the pile. But what if I could?

It's too late to change RFC2822, or at least I'm not going to try. I think the web's existing bits can solve this problem, and help people stay out of email debt, keep the weight off, whatever.

Let's start with something we all know, and work our way up:

The "out of office reply" or "vacation message" comes in response to a message one sends. We've all seen them before, we've all ignored them before. It says something like, "I'm not getting your mail now, but I will get it later. Bring it."

What if you emailed me and got this message:

What is this? First, this message was created by the mythical-mail client, a program to which I'll be referring throughout this essay. The mythical-mail client sent this auto-reply because my daily email threshold was reached or exceeded.

Without getting into arguments about what this number should be (I know, I know, you can read 10,000 messages a day), let's assume that we all have a threshold for incoming email. We read it, delete it, archive it, etc. and it's not an issue. However, after we exceed that level, we're unable to cope.

The mythical-mail client has a way for me to specify this number, after which it does the accounting for me in the background: Incoming Mail +1; Mail Read -1. Let's also assume that the mythical-mail client can learn and adjust this number on the fly as it watches me work day after day.

Mail Volume Auto-Reply version 0.2

This isn't that different from the vacation auto-reply, so let's improve things a bit. Here's an updated version:

The mythical-mail client provides a way for the sender to recall their original message. Luckily I'm working through my argument too quickly to stop and get into details, but let's say this works using existing RFC2822 bits rolled into another message: a Message-ID here, an X-Revoke there, and the remote mail client triggers the deletion automagically. Don't tell me it can't be done. I know people who could do it. If I didn't have so much mail, I'm one of them! Let's keep going.

Mail Volume Auto-Reply version 0.3

We've now got the potential for a person to set an email threshold, a polite but sober auto-reply that tells our friends they they're not going to get a timely response, and even a way for them to correct the situation and recall their message.

Time for another metaphor. If I want to see my boss about something, I go to his office--actually, I'd email him, but let's pretend. There are all sorts of visual cues that can help me decide whether to speak to him now or wait. First, his office door might be closed, or there might be a lineup of people stretched out the door, or I might see him on the phone through his window.

Let's add an "office door" to the mythical-mail client:

Clicking here above takes you to http://blogalony.com/index.php?view=mailvolume (which is a made-up URL, honest). What's waiting at the other end of that URL? Maybe it's an RSS feed or a microsummary or some other XML fragment. I don't know. What I do know is that it contains the information the mythical-mail client needs in order to do this:

or maybe this

In either case I'm given an important hint I don't usually have. The first address is someone whose Mail Volume feed I don't subscribe to (or who doesn't use one). This is the general case.

In the second and third addresses, I have an extra piece of information *before* I click 'Send'. I know that busy@beaver.org is nearing her limit, and that swamped@hopeless.net has exceeded his. This is information I don't have today, and information I'd like to have. I want to stress that this is only a hint--you might choose to ignore it because your message is *that* important. But probably your mail can wait, and this encourages you to spend a second considering its worth before dumping it on someone's lawn.

Piles Everywhere

The piles need to be in your front-lawn instead of your basement. Here's Lessig's web page today:

That address isn't enough. Tell me you don't want to click the bloody mailto: and introduce yourself! I do. What if we published our Mail Volume feeds with our addresses, like so:

When you click that link, the mythical-mail client subscribes to Lessig's Mail Volume feed. Now I don't have to send a mail in order to know that he's too busy to read it: I can check his office door before I knock.

My door is always open for *you*

Of course, there are people for whom my door is always open. Some mail I want to get no matter how busy I am, because it's from someone I know won't waste my time. As such, the mythical-mail client allows me to 'white list' certain people in my address book so they never get an auto-reply.

"But does the mythical-mail client also have a 'black list' of people who always get an auto-reply?" Let's talk after.

The Obligatory Rant

I'm sick of sending mail that doesn't get a response. Is it that you're ignoring me? Have I made you mad? Are you carefully crafting a 5,000 word response of the most elegant prose? Or are you just too damn busy to have even seen my mail? I'd like to know. If I did, it would change the way I send mail today.

I like to think that if I could see your pile, I'd act more responsibly. For example, I might send you 10 instead of 20 messages today. If that's not progress, nothing is.

Forward this to everyone you know.

David Humphrey is a professor at Seneca College's Centre for Development of Open Technology and an educational liaison with the Mozilla Foundation. He teaches, researches, and writes about open source and related ideas. If you'd like to comment on these ideas, you can do so on his blog. Special thanks to Amit "Cozby" Gundu for help with the graphics.