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.

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