The insidiousness of ‘inbox zero’

By Ezra Butler on August 12th, 2013

“Inbox zero” is a phrase as insidious and repulsive as any fascist slogan. In two words, the person uttering it manages to proclaim both the volume of email he receives and how adept he is at managing his workload. At least, that’s the plan. Because nothing feels as hideously egotistical as when some self-important individual, usually a startup entrepreneur, tweets about how he has achieved that rarefied status.

We have become obsessed with statistics and numbers. Likes, follows, steps we take a day, how much we weigh… it’s all being tweeted on a daily basis. Our workouts are being shared to prove our muscle and stamina. How many people post on our Facebook wall on our birthday. We want those numbers to be higher than the day or year before, without questioning the utility or meaning of the number.

Ironic, then, that the number we covet most of all is zero.

The fear of falling short of zero terrifies startup types. Thus the mythology of “inbox zero”  has spawned an industry to help them tame their runaway inboxes. While still private, the Mailbox app was sold to Dropbox for $100 million, after having 1.3 million people reserve a space in the beta.

Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, founder of TNW, has created a service called InboxPro which offers helpful personalised data about how you respond to email. There are currently almost 2,500 users waiting for the beta. Lifehacker and other DIY sites routinely publish suggestions for managing overflowing inboxes.

Like the number of friends you have on social networks, inbox zero has become gamed as well. Well, I say gamed. More accurately, it is lied about. In fact the number of emails sitting in people’s inboxes is probably the statistic most lied about on the internet every day.

Inbox Zero fanatics delete, instead of responding to, emails. Which is fine – I mean, it’s their life – but it’s comparable to “cleaning” your flat by purchasing trash bags and indiscriminately binning the lot. The excuse to interlocutors left hanging? “Oh, I’m sorry. I just get so much, you know? How do you manage it all”

A decade ago, when people were less brazen, they declared “email bankruptcy”, a term that has fallen into disuse. That expression contains a certain futility: an admission of failure. It was an honest, if extreme, solution; a decision not taken lightly. It was often coupled with a polite post facto email informing the sender that their message was not read nor attended to.

The modern day social media contract has been rewritten, so replies are not necessary and in many cases not even expected any longer. A caveat emptor of sorts has been deployed. Once brought into service only for holidays, auto-responders are now commonplace among the jetset, who use it as an easy way to brag about where they are right now and to let correspondents know they are too busy and important to read email.

Such a practice can be quite annoying – for example, when one is required to email one’s editor while the latter is on a financing roadshow across the United States. What was once informational and  utilitarian can feel like quasi-solicited spam.

IMAP4 and POP3, the most often used email protocols, are both more than a decade old – from before Gmail was created. In short, they are antiquated. Perhaps the protocols should be updated to include more accessible metadata, akin to Twitter including more information data on tweets, accessible to clients. A consortium led by the quintet of Google, Yahoo!, AOL, Microsoft and Apple could easily implement a backwards-compatible protocol which would soon be adopted by everyone else in the world.

Facebook’s social messaging platform actually solves many problems, with little overhead. The “seen” notification, while anxiety-raising for neurotic individuals, is helpful. Facebook also limits the messages from people outside the user’s network – again, allowing some modicum of peace of mind. All this is done while limiting extraneous messages, something which cannot easily be implemented on traditional email platforms.

“Inbox zero” is fake and meaningless. An array of simple tags like “seen”, “ignored”, “deleted”, “blocked” and “reported” would provide valuable, unobtrusive information to the sender without adding anything to the workload of the receiver. While some would prefer to actively mask the status, most will realise the utility and adjust their viewing habits – and behaviours.

Email will continued to be stuck in the past until a top-down solution is achieved. Until then, we are condemned to listen to the self-involved and the pathologically unavailable boasting about their email efficiency and receive annoying informative emails about other people’s working holidays.

No one cares if you have any emails in your inbox. They only care if you’ve seen – and replied to – the email from them. Can’t we at least agree on that?