Email is gross: How I cleaned hairballs of data out of my once-filthy inbox

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

At an Apple Genius Bar not long ago, a dead-eyed Genius laboriously backed up my groaning hard drive. As I stared at my database, a wave of disgust nearly knocked me out.

“Email is gross,” I said.

Our eyes locked. “Yes,” said the Genius. “God, yes.”

Five hours later, at home, my email was still backing up with more gross hairballs of data onto the backup disk. Saved for—what reason, again?

Email is everywhere, like litter in the 1950s: cigarette butts, candy wrappers, supermarket circulars. Every now and then the heap gets too high and we shove it out of sight into anonymous, far-off data storage chambers somewhere in Texas—the fetid noxious Fresh Kills landfills of our digital world.

Where does all the email end up? I wonder this, for the first time, because email is now a scourge. The once-miraculous digital postal service—first CompuServe then EarthLink now Gmail—that was my joyous gateway to the World Wide Web years ago is now a hideous obstacle to footloose digital living. This is not just because there’s too much of it. It’s also because all those headers and tedious routing information, and the possibilities of spam and malware and viruses riding those rails make the whole e-post seem pushy and malicious. No one ever agreed on the right way to write email, either, so it’s formally a mess.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t love good email. At its best it beats good tweets and good updates, and even good letters on paper. It can still be extremely moving and improvisational at once, and intimate, as it was 10 years ago in its heyday. A few friends of mine who developed those skills years ago can still be induced to write sublime, long e-letters. Sometimes I try to ask them broad email questions (“How was your year?”) just for the pleasure of their voices in the inbox. (Yes I mean you, @lucindaros and @caseygreenfield.)

But, God, the rest. Notifications from Twitter, Pinterest, Quora, VICE Media, NYTimes, bococa_parents, Madewell.com, Travelzoo, Soap.com, Barneys, horoscopes. Stuff with “Work,” and “Tech” and “Out of Office AutoReply” in the subject line. It’s humiliating; I’m a sitting duck. I unsubscribe and then resubscribe, fearful I’ll miss something. I try to delete, but I don’t try hard enough. I get as overwhelmed as a hoarder. And more email pours in.

I know some big shots who skillfully screen massive amounts of email—hi, David Pogue—but I don’t get nearly enough email for that.

And then one day after my visit to the Genius Bar I learned—in an email—about a paid service that organizes email.

“SaneBox” had a nice ring to it. And the promo had that swingy, fun, Web 3.0 tone to it—along with some captivating numbers: “The average employee spends 13 hours per week reading and responding to email, which takes up 28% of work time.”

(Huh? Average employee? Not at Starbucks, I’d wager—or at strip clubs or on the sets of plays. But OK.)

We spend a lot of time with email. That’s all I needed to hear. I installed SaneBox for a free trial and OMG. Instantly, nonurgent email was preswept out of sight—but not canned and deleted; it vanished in a spot where it could be looked at later. I say “preswept” because it didn’t even appear in my inbox. I never saw this junk- and quasi-junk mail. Later in the day I got an email summarizing what was stashed in my SaneLater box, which now appeared along with my other mailboxes flush-left in Gmail.

If I saw something I wanted there, I could “train” SaneBox to take it out of SaneLater and send it—this time or every time—into my inbox.

Best thing yet? A big chunk of my inbox was filled with super-old stuff that SaneBox just filed in my new SaneArchive. I like knowing that it’s “archived” and that I could look at it someday. Just not today.

My trial period elapsed and I started paying. It’s some $80 for an annual subscription. Worth every penny so far. My inbox is never far from zero these days, and I pay more attention to the good email because I don’t lump it in with the bunk.

When the Internet is working it keeps me sane. The full digital catastrophe, I believe, continues to be tilted in favor of higher reasoning, fruitful collaboration and even egalitarianism. Life gets better, in other words, as it gets more digital.

This month alone I’ve gotten inspiration and ballast from apps like Omvana, a meditation app; Vine and Instagram, for keeping the Web visual; and Cue, for calendar jive. Search and social networks still work well for me. I know Facebook’s uncool now and Twitter can be a madhouse, but they rarely fail to surprise and delight. As for search, Google long ago closed certain algorithmic loopholes that presented junk responses to queries. Lately I’ve been amazed anew at how I can put full questions into search—“How do you remove a light-bulb base that’s stuck in a socket?”—and just get the answers.

But there can be logjams and stagnation everywhere. And the Internet has to evolve. Email is a relatively old technology that is overused, and it tests my patience. I know that when I’m feeling revulsion from pixels that it’s me, and not email, that’s the problem. SaneBox organizes me and, for now, I love it. Nothing that’s wrong with the Internet can’t be fixed by what’s right with it.

  • A firefighter’s plan to save lives and employ brothers
    A firefighter’s plan to save lives and employ brothers

    Being named Ohio’s “entrepreneur of the year” in April was enough to confirm for Zach Green that quitting his job as an Eli Lilly brand manager to start his own business was the right move. But seeing the announcement of his award in the paper alongside the news that his former employer would lay off 30 percent of its sales force “was the ultimate validation,” he says.

  • Apple expands buybacks by $30 billion, OKs seven-for-one stock split
    Apple expands buybacks by $30 billion, OKs seven-for-one stock split

    By Edwin Chan SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Apple Inc has approved another $30 billion in share buybacks till the end of 2015 and authorized a rarely seen seven-for-one stock split, addressing calls to share more of its cash hoard while broadening the stock's appeal to individual investors. Activist investor Carl Icahn, who had famously called on the iPhone maker to boost its buyback program, tweeted his approval of the move on Wednesday. On Wednesday, Apple reported sales of 43.7 million iPhones in the quarter ended March, far outpacing the roughly 38 million that Wall Street had predicted. But whether Apple can again produce a revolutionary new product remains the central question in investors' and Silicon Valley executives' minds.

  • U.S., euro zone activity up; China decline slows
    U.S., euro zone activity up; China decline slows

    By Rodrigo Campos and Jonathan Cable NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - The U.S. manufacturing sector expanded in April and the euro zone private sector started the second quarter on its strongest footing since 2011, while the pace of decline in Chinese factory activity slowed, surveys showed on Wednesday. Financial data firm Markit said its preliminary or "flash" U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index dipped to 55.4 in April from 55.5 in March. Economists polled by Reuters expected a reading of 56.0. Earlier on Wednesday, data showed China's HSBC/Markit flash PMI for April rose to 48.3 from March's final reading of 48.0, but was still below the 50 line separating expansion from contraction.

  • Buffett says abstained from voting on Coca-Cola's compensation plan: CNBC
    Buffett says abstained from voting on Coca-Cola's compensation plan: CNBC

    (Reuters) - Warren Buffett, chairman of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway , said on Wednesday he thinks Coca-Cola's controversial equity compensation plan was excessive, but that Berkshire Hathaway abstained in the shareholders vote. Earlier on Wednesday, Coca-Cola said 83 percent of shareholders approved the plan. Critics, most notably activist investor David Winters, said the plan would dilute the holdings of current shareholders too much. As of December 31, Berkshire owned 400 million shares of the company, just over 9 percent of the shares outstanding.

  • Ahead of earnings, Caterpillar dealer data paints mixed picture
    Ahead of earnings, Caterpillar dealer data paints mixed picture

    (Reuters) - Caterpillar Inc released unaudited dealer sales data on Wednesday that showed a deepening deterioration in global demand for its mining equipment but a continued, albeit modest, rebound in sales of construction equipment as well as reciprocating and turbine engines. The world's largest maker of construction and mining equipment said global dealer sales of its yellow earth-moving machines fell 12 percent year-over-year in March, after falling 8 percent in both January and February. Equipment demand from mining customers was especially weak, Caterpillar said, with global dealer sales of those high-margin products tumbling 46 percent in March after falling 37 percent in both January and February. The downturn in demand for mining equipment was especially dramatic in the Asia-Pacific region, where dealer sales slumped 65 percent in March after falling 55 percent in February and 53 percent in January.

  • Valeant CEO 'disappointed' in Allergan poison pill: CNBC
    Valeant CEO 'disappointed' in Allergan poison pill: CNBC

    (Reuters) - The chief executive officer of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which made a $47 billion unsolicited offer for competitor Allergan Inc on Tuesday, said during an interview on CNBC that he was "disappointed" with Allergan's so-called poison pill. Allergan on Tuesday night said its board of directors had adopted a one-year stockholder rights plan to give it more time to consider takeover proposals. The Valeant offer was made with Pershing Square Capital Management hedge fund, which built up a stake in the company. ...

  • TSX set to open higher after results from Apple, Facebook
    TSX set to open higher after results from Apple, Facebook

    April 24 - Canadian stock index futures inched higher on Thursday as upbeat earnings from heavyweights such as Apple and Facebook outweighed weak results from Potash Corp . June futures on the S&P TSX index were up 0.06 percent at 0715 ET. No major economic events are scheduled in Canada. The Toronto Stock Exchange's S&P/TSX composite index eased on Wednesday, with gains from some big energy producers offset by weakness in banks and a pullback in Valeant Pharmaceuticals' shares. Dow Jones Industrial Average futures were up 0.3 percent at 0715 ET, S&P 500 futures were up 0. ...

  • Buffett: moving oil by rail safely major industry concern
    Buffett: moving oil by rail safely major industry concern

    By Luciana Lopez NEW YORK (Reuters) - Warren Buffett, chairman of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, said on Wednesday that safety is a major priority for the rail industry, after a recent spate of accidents raised concerns about how to transport oil safely. He added that the delay in the construction of the Keystone pipeline was unlikely to prompt additional purchases of tank cars at Berkshire railroad unit BNSF. COCA-COLA COMPENSATION PLAN Buffett also said, in an interview with CNBC the same day, that he thinks Coca-Cola's equity compensation plan was excessive, but that Berkshire Hathaway abstained in a shareholders vote. Earlier on Wednesday, Coca-Cola said 83 percent of shareholders approved the plan.

Follow Yahoo! News

Loading...