Unread Count

Note from 2019: My 2012 self wrote this. I don’t remember writing it. This is the first time I have felt personally attacked by a post I wrote seven years ago.

Why do so many people have these three- or four- or even five-digit inbox unread counts? I become uncomfortable when I have more than about five unread emails, or if there are twenty emails of whatever status in my inbox — the rest get archived, of course. Out of sight, out of mind. Whew. It’s hard for me to fathom how anybody can sleep knowing they have such a scary number of unread emails waiting for them.

Why does the status of being unread matter, one might ask? There are already so many ways to classify things in the typical inbox: stars or labels or folders or flags or whatever your mail service may call them. Well, the thing that makes the unread qualifier stand out is that it already has meaning; you don’t need to assign it any. It means you haven’t read it! Thank you, Captain Obvious.

If you know how to use email, there are no good reasons to ignore the status. Is the email actually not important to the point where you won’t even bother to read it? In that case, why is it even in your inbox? If it’s spam, mark it as such; spam filters are pretty effective nowadays, but only if you train them, and even if not it only takes one click to get rid of it. If it’s some notification you don’t care about, unsuscribe or fine-tune your subscription. As invasive as web services are getting nowadays, I haven’t yet seen a legitimate one that doesn’t provide a link to let you do one of these things, even if it’s concealed in small gray text at the bottom of the email. Should you encounter a notification that doesn’t have these links or doesn’t stop spawning evil clones after you tell it to, don’t think twice; it is spam and should be mercilessly filtered as such. And if you still have two hundred emails left after all that, you should either rethink your values or start reading them now.

I imagine there are people out there who don’t bother making sure all their emails have been read before calling it a day because they can still figure out what they need to deal with next and what they don’t. But the point of organizing things is to reduce the amount of effort you need to use, and it’s half-automated for you with email now. Yeah, being organized is hard, but you’ve already put in the effort once to determine if the email matters. Afterwards, if the computer can tell whether you want to read it or not, why bother to waste more brainpower to make the same decision again?

Take a step back from technology and suppose it’s a physical mailbox. If you get a letter, even if it looks spammy or suspicious, you wouldn’t leave it unread in the mailbox. If you know you’ll never read it, you throw it away. Okay, you might have to postpone reading a few of them now or then, but you should stop well short of 2,000. There’s no really good analogy for the notifications that come in swarms that can be disabled, but if you start getting ads with a ridiculous frequency, just leaving them to rot in the mailbox helps no one. You still have to receive your bills and whatnot, even if they’re camouflaged by spam. Wouldn’t it be great if you could circumvent the spam, then? So it should be with email; now space is cheap and you don’t have to throw many emails away, but at the very least you can still archive the unimportant or finished ones and get them out of your inbox.

I was rather confused by the number of email followers I was getting here on this blog, because I couldn’t see even my closest friends wanting to be directly notified when I make a post. I largely abhor email subscriptions and have stuck with using an RSS reader (Google Reader currently, although there are many others), which I find to be more widely supported anyway. It doesn’t make sense for me to mix the messages actively seeking my attention, or often even a response, with posts I only might be interested in.

The important difference, for me, is that checking email is a responsibility. Feeds are where I go looking for stuff when I have time, organized from all interesting corners of the internet I’ve explored to be conveniently reachable in one place. Instead of wiki-laddering blindly whenever I want to look for interesting things, I can create a portal to the places I have experience of being interested in. My inbox is where people come looking to use my time, and since there are two or even more people involved actively, it does often make a difference if I deal with it now or later.

Of course, if convenience is the only thing you care about then indeed one entry point to check everything makes sense and I guess throwing everything into your inbox seems reasonable. But unless you treat all emails with nearly the same priority, from the notice that you should attend an awards ceremony in a week to the notice that Bob has tagged you in a autogenerated BS personality test, you will still need to separate them sooner or later when you’re short on time. Why mix up all the subscriptions with the direct messages and force yourself to prioritize them manually when your computer can deal with it for you? Which would be worse: reading a post or notification a few days later than usual because you forgot to check a different source of “stuff”, or missing a critical email from a friend, parent, teacher, important organization, or nerdship-idol because it was masked by 200 other notifications in the same place? Do you really care about most of those 200 emails? Do you even care about half of them, or even a quarter, enough to require human attention for each of them individually?

If not, it’s time to turn off notifications and archive/mark stuff as read. If you do, you are probably rich enough to hire a personal secretary, and you also probably have many more important things to do than read unmotivated essays by a bored high-school kid who should probably be studying.

(note: the commenting setup here is experimental and I may not check my comments often; if you want to tell me something instead of the world, email me!)