Gmail turns 10: Here’s how we fix email’s ‘too much’ problem

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It’s no joke — Gmail turned 10 years old on April Fool’s Day.

You should celebrate. Even if you’re not one of its at least 425 million active users, Gmail’s innovations have probably saved you countless hours of pain at the inbox. There’s no denying it: Google’s little experiment took the bulky, bloated mess that was early 2000s email and cleaned it up. Way up.

This anniversary is about a product. But more than that, it’s about this beautiful, fragile idea that any tech headache can be cured — even the one we don’t know we have. Email was a disaster before Gmail threw in 1 GB of storage, fluid Web access, threaded conversations and oh yeah — a way to search your emails that didn’t take an afternoon — all for free.

monipullemailBut think back: You were resigned to the email status quo. Weren’t you? I mean, what Yahoo and Hotmail offered, embarrassing as it looks now, was good enough then. That’s the thing about technologies that become essential. You’re too busy to demand better. You just hit reply and hope.

And so it is with email today. Many have tried, but none have succeeded in doing for email now what Gmail did for it then. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve read that email is “due for a makeover,” like it’s finally reached some critical breaking point. Usually I find the phrase in some giddy article about a new email service that promises to solve email forever! — year after year after year.

Gmail’s birthday is snapping me out of this cynicism long enough, I think, to consider what “solving” email would actually take.

If the next Gmail came along tomorrow, what symptoms could it treat in that shock-and-awe, this-changes-everything kind of way?

What’s causing the headaches

I’m just a lowly tech consumer. I have no illusions of figuring out the most annoying problem in the tech universe. But it seems to me that all email headaches past and present — but particularly present — can be described with two words: too much.

Too much that’s useless: We call worthless messages spam, still, but spam isn’t what it used to be. Spam filters do a pretty good job capturing classic spam — the garbled filth that we can’t seem to erase from the world. These days when we complain about spam we tend to mean some marketing message, promotion or group thread that we signed up for, sometimes without realizing it, and that then get stuck with because unsubscribing from these messages is more of a pain than ignoring them.

Screen Shot 2014-04-01 at 10.51.56 PMToo much too often: You have a minute after dinner, so you send an email to your team about a big project. A team member checks her email and decides not to watch the latest “Walking Dead” with her boyfriend until she’s tapped out her furious response, making him check his email and send a work message out to his colleagues, pretty much ruining everyone’s evening. Can we admit it? Work hours are a thing of the past, and it’s hurting us. To say always-on email is not to blame for the destruction of the work/life divide is technically accurate, but only the way saying “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is technically accurate.

Too much to manage: Managing an email inbox has become a work of zen. Productivity monks — you know who you are — figured it out and tell us it’s easy. Meanwhile, we struggle. It’s choose your own adventure: Do you aim for Inbox 0, filter like mad, add 100 miracle plugins or surrender to the chaos? It’s hard enough just to eat right and exercise without email requiring more discipline than we’ve ever had. Every year we get more email, every year we blame ourselves if we don’t stay on top of it, and every year it gets more and more absurd to believe we can keep adding without losing…something. Maybe our minds.

Too much exposed: Privacy advocates, citizens and even legislators threw a fit when they learned Gmail made its money by serving ads against words it read in users’ email messages. Today that’s nothing. Facebook Beacon, the NSA and even Microsoft — which got plenty of blowback for reading customer emails during an investigation into stolen trade secrets — have taken the privacy debate to new, more exciting places. Meanwhile, our email address is our key to everything. This app, that contest, this online bank login, 20 percent off at this retail store. None of us has any idea how much we’ve exposed or at what actual cost. Maybe none. But it’s a big, ugly question.

The problem of ‘too much to try’

I have no doubt that as you’ve read this some of you have made a mental list of a bunch of apps that solve one or several of these problems. (If you’re a productivity monk, you’ve deployed them to magical effect and you’re wondering what I’m going on and on about.)

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An app called Mailbox lets you “snooze” certain messages until later in the day, or even until pre-set “work hours.” Unroll.me mops up all those buzzy subscriptions into an off-inbox digest you can check or ignore as you like. There are way, way more innovations out there, but that’s another headache: There’s too much to try. Some people talk about sampling new email clients and plugins like it’s a breeze, but come on. It’s work. And the more the services that come along that promise the moon and the stars but deliver only a slight improvement to our workflow — with an interface learning curve, to boot — the less willing we’re going to be to take the time to try it.

I told you I wasn’t going to figure this out.

But here’s where I’m optimistic: I believe technology can and must offer solutions to the hairiest of these problems, the human ones. Unlike the creator of Gmail himself.

Paul Buchheit was being honest and insightful when he told Time’s Harry McCracken — for the site’s fantastic retrospective on Gmail’s creation ‚ that people have become slaves to their email.

“It’s not a technical problem. It can’t be solved with a computer algorithm,” he said. “It’s more of a social problem.”

But just because we got ourselves into this “too much” mess doesn’t mean technology can’t help us find our way out of it.

In fact, I’d like to propose a disruptive, world-changing new approach for anyone who dares to build the next generation of email service: Instead of freeing us up to do more, make it culturally possible for us to do less. Instead of endlessly expanding our time, come to our side and help us protect it.

We’re overwhelmed. Relieve us.

I’ll throw you a party in 10 years.

Mónica Guzmán is a freelance journalist, speaker and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

  • http://rebump.cc Rebump

    Super rundown of the problems Gmail solves. Some issues that remain are the difficulty getting an important message through the noise of thousands of Daily Deal (spam) emails your contacts signed up for. Follow-up is key. We built a tool to make it super easy.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I’m a fan of Gmail’s tabbed inbox feature – so I get my priority mails in one tab and can just scan my “promotions” and “updates” tabs for the threads and subscriptions I only sometimes have time for.

      • http://rebump.cc Rebump

        That works great for your own messages, but when it comes to getting your important emails to friends and colleagues answered, we’ve found follow-up is the way to go. Because it can be tedious, we built Rebump. Thanks for responding! Your articles are always a treat.

  • Allen

    GMail to me is like AOL a decade ago. I’m done with them making money off of my information, so I set up my own mail server.

  • https://leemail.me Lee

    Great article. I think you really nailed the human issues around our CURRENT email problems.

    I’d love to get your opinion on a new service I created with a team in London – https://leemail.me.

    I suspect our instructions could use a bit of work. But it’s a very simple solution for the “too much that’s useless” problem, and also a bit of the “too much exposed” problems.

    Keep up the good work!