Email, the mixed blessing of cyberexistence


Email is the simplest and purest form of communication. Feelings become thoughts, thoughts become ideas and ideas become words. These words are sent, willy-nilly, all through cyberspace at the speed of light. At best, it is a message from loved ones. At worst, a perpetual chore-list of requests for your time, the cyberspace equivalent of a stack of bills. For most, it sways somewhere in the middle.

Years ago when I was new to this whole 'electronic medium' thing, I thought email was great! I'd say the time was around Fall 1985, the setting: autumn in Cambridge, MA. Once a week I'd walk up to the fifth floor of MIT's student center, log in to a timesharing vt220 and see three messages from high school friends. I'd spend an hour, maybe two responding to their messages and feeling fulfilled. At that time, email was a release from the pressures of studying, where I could spend 'cybertime' with old friends for no cost. I welcomed more mail, and spent a reasonable percentage of my online time trying to find out if other school chums were online.

Twelve years and three degrees (going on four) later I find email a mixed blessing. While granted I am connecting with more friends than I could have ever imagined, it has taken its toll on me. I no longer find it the pleasure it was in 1985. A good percentage of my email is work-related, which means I half-cringe at the thought of more email messages, since I know that usually translates into more work for me. However, aside from work, even email from friends has become, at times, a chore, which is unfortunate.

As Bill Gates laments, there's no easy way to turn $ into time, which has become the bottleneck for most of us nowadays. It clearly is for me. I love reading Email from friends. Love it. But it's the derned responding that takes so much time. Sure, a form-letter near the holidays saves work, but what happens when you really do want to connect at a personal level to the issues presented in an incoming email? And what happens when there are 50 personal emails waiting in your inbox?

The real problem I have with email is that the amount of incoming email I get is directly proportional to the amount of email I answered the night or two before. It's like the zombie from Night of the Living Dead that just won't die. There are 50 messages in my inbox. So I stay home on a Sunday, work my behind off, and answer all of them. The next morning I wake up to 60 new messages. Had I not answered any, I wouldn't have gotten any. But if I answer them all, they all come back to haunt me the next day.

I wanted to chart my incoming email as well as the email left unanswered. I created a few scripts to do this for me, and learned to use gnuplot to graph them and spit the graph out as a gif. The graph below shows this for all of my email during 1997, which is updated daily. I only started recording my "unanswered email" on 1997-03-11 which is why it's all zeros before that.

Note the dip around 1997-02-07. I had my Qualifying Exam then and didn't answer any email for three or four days straight -- I just let it pile up. The next day I went crazy answering email and look at the spike of incoming email the next day. That's the frustration I'm talking about.

Unfortunately, I don't have many solutions other than to be more glib, use form responses, and don't respond immediately. There's a theory that the amount of time I take to respond to a message is closely related to the time the recipient decides to take to respond to my response. So if I get new mail a minute ago, and respond immediately, chances are high I'll get another mail from the person within a few minutes. But, wait a week or so to answer the mail and I get a reprieve for a week. Anyway, thanks for letting me ramble and feel free to stop back here to see how the battle is progressing.

Dan Garcia, 1997-03-24

The Graph

(Automatically generated email graph)

The Responses

Reponse #1

The best feedback I've received about this is from my friend Dan Rice, who took an Alan Greenspan viewpoint:
From: Dan Rice
Subject: Your email page

All I can say is BUY BUY BUY!

Reponse #2

My friend Bill Jarrold, however, provides some comfort:
From: Bill Jarrold
Subject: email death, help!!

You think your email load is bad, see a snippet from my daily battle:

billj@krabappel ~$ pine
Pine finished -- Closed "INBOX". Kept 1,131 messages and deleted 82.

WWW Maven: Dan Garcia ( Send me feedback

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