Today Google announced an ambitious project called Inbox, a new way to manage your Gmail that looks like an absolute godsend. There is, however, one thing that Google's clever engineering won't fix, and might actually make worse: The humans sending the emails.
"We get more email now than ever," say the Inbox team in their announcement blog post today. "Important information is buried inside messages, and our most important tasks can slip through the cracks—especially when we're working on our phones." Inbox uses a system of smart features to tame the beast. It "bundles" related emails into single-topic threads, and even adds relevant info. It gives you the ability to "snooze" emails, similar to other apps. It pulls out important info from certain emails so you don't have to open them at all. Doesn't that sound great?
In other words, it fixes three massively annoying problems with modern-day email overload. It's a classic Google ploy of leveraging machine learning to fix a complicated problem, and if it's anything like Gmail, it could change how we communicate by email. The catch is that the users will still suck. They might even suck more than they used to!
The Human Factor
The topic of email is a divisive one online. It is either broken or not broken depending on who you ask. An underutilized mainstay or an outmoded dinosaur. As Google's Inbox announcement today underlined, no one can quite agree on how we should use email, so everyone's using it differently—and that's exactly what makes it so tough to manage.
In the early days of the web, email was a simple metaphor; one of the very earliest instances of skeuomorphism. Just like a real-life letter, it had an address and a body. But maybe most importantly, you went and got it yourself; you'd check your email by actively connecting to the internet, the digital equivalent of walking down the driveway. I don't need to tell you how much that's changed, and how today, most of us are email-accessible in all but the most intimate moments of the day. Some lunatics are even accessible then.
According to a 2012 McKinsey report, we spend almost 30 percent of our work hours managing email. We get email almost every second (sometimes more frequently), and nearly every interaction we have online generates a message. Buying toilet paper on Amazon. Someone favoriting a tweet. A news agency in Europe mentioning someone with your name. Our grandmas forwarding a joke. We are pervasively connected—but whether we act like it's no big deal. We opt in again and again because really, there's no escape.
Google's School of Email Etiquette
This escalation of volume and frequency of email has been paired with the complete obliteration of universal etiquette surrounding it. The more emails we get, the less we reply. And it becomes OK everyone knows everyone else is buried too. We look away from an important email at work and before we know it, it's buried under less important topics. Time-sensitive messages get lost below J.Crew sales. A day away from the office leaves us digging out from under the avalanche—or abandoning it as a lost cause and hoping that anything important will garner a follow-up.
But there are two sides to the problem. There's a good chance you send way, way too many messages yourself, many times to say things that would be better served by an in-person chat, a Facebook group, an AIM chat, a Yo (yes, a Yo. Just don't send me another email.). No one's quite sure what email is specifically for anymore, so we all abuse it. We have dozens of other options for communication, all of which are tailored to specific scenarios, yet we choose to continue replying-all to a 120-message thread about dinner next week.
There are already many easy hacks to avoid becoming an email problem user. For example, you can tack on "/eom" to a subject line if the body is empty. There are other extensions and tools that can help, too. And in some ways, email has become a useful repository for all the extras: Those receipts, pictures, and inane chats are actually a very important archive, in certain situations. For all its problems, email is a vital and wonderful tool. Its success has been its downfall.
So rather than obliterate email completely, Inbox establishes a set of UX prompts to whittle email's inherent lack of specificity into a finer, more manageable point. You'll know what messages say before opening them. Not every email will generate its own message in your inbox. Spam will be relegated to the red zone.
It sounds amazing, and who wouldn't want to jump on the Inbox bandwagon—the Inbox lifeboat?—as quickly as possible. At the same time, a lifeboat that lets us float above the email tsunami won't stem the flood itself. It's possible that Inbox is poised to amplify our email war-crimes by pushing PR people, advertisers, and even our loved ones to shout even louder and more urgently to be heard over the noise and the algorithm.
If anyone can build a beautiful, free, well-functioning email tool, it's Google. Gmail was one of the first to really nail the spam filter, and Google Now can work beautifully (at times). Inbox is bound to be as good or better. But it's worth pointing out that it may not transform the basic behaviors at issue here. Email will still be email, for better or worse, and Inbox won't stop humans from being dumb about abusing it, ignoring it, relying on it, and letting it distract us while we work. That, sadly, is a problem no algorithm can fix.
Image by Jim Cooke.