Posts Tagged ‘E-mail’

10 ways spam taught us to focus our attention

02 Apr


You’ve just read the very first spam message. Sent by Carl Gartley on behalf of Gary Thuerk, this message went to several hundred ARPANET members on May 3, 1978. The message violated the until-then standard practice of e-mailing people individually (ah, those were the days!) and annoyed a whole lot of ARPANET users. It also sold some computers. And thus, the era of spam marketing was born.

It’s customary to curse the name of Thuerk, though Thuerk himself uses fatherespam as his LinkedIn profile URL, and prominently cites his role in creating spam as a professional credential. (Guess he decided to embrace it sometime after this interview.) But I think that Gary Thuerk is owed more than a sarcastic thank you.

After all, spam — now estimated at more than 75% of e-mail traffic — has been one of the major drivers of online innovation. To cope with “Pandora’s Inbox”, we’ve had to develop attention and information-management systems that prove crucial for surviving today’s communications-rich environment.

Spam is the vaccine for your attention span. It’s the toxin that has stimulated our immunity system’s defenses. Thanks to spam, we’ve had to find technical, social and personal ways of keeping our eyes on the 22% of e-mail that isn’t pure junk, and to avoid the 78% that is.

Those tools and tactics turn out to serve us very well in the era of social media. Now that people generate content and communications in ways that go well beyond e-mail, we need to focus in ways that go far beyond a spam filter. We can thank Gary Thuerk and the spammers of the universe for helping us develop the following ways to focus our attention:

  1. Email filtering: Email filters, which were first created to deal with spam, have since turned into powerful tools for managing and organizing incoming email. I’m utterly dependent on Gmail filters in ways that go way beyond spam elimination. Without spam I might have to read and file my e-mails by hand (shudder).
  2. Attention filtering: Email filters have inspired analogous tools on other platforms. Twitter lists, the Facebook “hide” option and the entire idea of PATH are all about filtering out extraneous content so we can focus our attention on a more limited circle of relationships or a more limited sphere of information.
  3. Texting and messaging: Spam made us impatient about the process of plowing through our inboxes. Texting, chat and Twitter are all instant communications tools that sidestep the whole inbox nightmare by coming to us in real time. (And better yet, by being incredibly short.) Learning to communicate in very brief increments is one of the legacies of spam, and in a world that connects us to hundreds or thousands of people through a wide range of social networks, we can be grateful that some of those conversations happen briefly.
  4. Pull: Email did a fantastic job of teaching us about the limits of push: content that gets pushed to you. As a result many of us have shifted much of our attention onto pull: content that we pull to us by choosing what to visit or subscribe to. For instance, instead of subscribing to e-newsletters, we might subscribe to blog RSS feeds. While e-newsletters are still alive and well, the shift to pull is an essential tool for people trying to manage a very high volume of information.
  5. FOAF: The friend-of-a-friend principle has driven a wide range of social networks in which your interactions are structured around networks of trusted contacts. Relying on networks of trust is a way of getting past the spam problem, by opening communication channels only along lines that mirror pre-existing social relationships. Just think about LinkedIn, which explicitly limits your ability to contact people based on how closely you are connected. That whole model of using social networks to construct boundaries around who gets our attention is in some part thanks to the problem of ungated attention first demonstrated by spam.
  6. Marketing with value: Spam’s assault on e-mail delivery and opening rates first forced marketers to think about what they could actually offer to make an e-mail worth reading. That consciousness and skill set has served marketers well in the social media era, where the competition for attention is even fiercer. If some online marketing now delivers real value to its targets — think the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty or Dell’s Ideastorm — that’s because marketers have learned that providing tangible value is one way to earn people’s attention.
  7. Opt in, opt out: To address the spam problem, many countries have laws that require all bulk e-mails to include an opt-out link, and/or to be sent only by people who have explicitly opted into the mailing list. (Of course, these laws are ignored by all kinds of illegitimate operations, which is why spam volumes remain so high.) This has given us the idea that you don’t demand the attention of someone who hasn’t asked for your content, and that losing someone’s attention is a routine and acceptable part of our communications ecosystem. You can see that principle extended into technologies and practices like the ever-evolving policies on what appears in your Facebook news feed, and the ease of unfollowing people on Twitter.
  8. Ignoring communications: Spam taught us that it was OK to ignore a lot of e-mail. We still have a ways to go in overcoming our notion that all e-mail deserves a reply, but to the extent that we’re asserting some sense of agency over how we allocate our attention, it builds on the foundations established by spam. Once you learn how to ignore offers from Nigerian princes, it gets a lot easier to ignore irrelevant office-wide memos.
  9. Getting rich quick: In a world that delivers daily messages about how you can get rich quick, it’s understandable that we’d lose our patience for long, slow empire-building. Maybe it’s overreaching to blame (or credit) spam for a generation of social media sites built on the business model of, “let’s build something that we can get Yahoo! or Google to buy.” But some of the startups that found their quick return through early acquisition have included some great tools for managing our information and communications (hello, delicious and Radian6).
  10. Penis talk: If we weren’t so constantly deluged by spam ads promoting Viagra, Cialis and penis enlargement, we might think that the size and engorgement of one’s genitalia were strictly personal matters. Thanks to spam, we now know how much people like to think and talk about penises, information that has helped to drive some of the Internet’s most successful entertainment sites. Imagine if we’d wasted all that attention on lady parts instead!

How to create Gmail labels that help empty your e-mail inbox

30 Dec

Before you get get rolling with your new filters, you’ll need to set up some labels. I described my collection of alternate mail processing boxes (aka quasi-inboxes) in my first blog post about inbox zero, and offer more suggestions about label setup in my blog post on how to empty your inbox with Gmail filters, where I tackle the key question: what comes first, the filters or the labels?

The answer is: labels. Begin with a basic set of labels, and expect to add more as you process your “systems needed” folders and identify more filters (and more labels) needed. I recommend creating a folder (label) to hold all these alternate inboxes, which I call “Box” (because it’s full of quasi-inboxes). Inside Box are a few top-level folders, each of which has further subfolders.

You can create your labels directly in Gmail, but I find it easier to create folders and subfolders inside my local mail client (i.e., where I use the Mailbox/New Mailbox…. command). It’s easy and intuitive to create a new folder and then place additional folders inside it, whereas it can be a bit challenging to set up your nested labels in Gmail by creating a new label with a name like Box/Lists/HARO — especially if you make a mistake and type Box/List/HARO instead, thereby creating a whole OTHER folder structure named Box/List instead of Box/Lists. Google something like “how to” folders subfolders [insert name of your e-mail client] if you need help creating folders and subfolders in your e-mail system. Note that you can run into trouble if you try to create a subfolder that exceeds Gmail’s 40-character limit; if you get a message that a folder can’t be created, it’s probably because you’ve exceed the 40-character limit.

Set of folders inside folders....

            <<        IMAP sync         >>            
List of Gmail labels corresponding to the folders

...translate to Gmail labels

You should already have created a set of labels for your archive, reference and clients/projects, which is what you use to file messages you’ve already read and acted upon. The “Box” labels are specifically for housing e-mails that haven’t been processed yet, either because you’ve set up a rule that sends those messages to an alternate quasi-inbox for you to read when you have time, or because you’ve read (and possibly replied to) a message and need to bring it forward for later action. Your “Box” will end up containing a variety of sublabels (quasi-inboxes) that reflect your personal workflow, but to begin, try setting up the following starter labels and sublabels (or folders and subfolders) in Gmail or your local e-mail client:

  1. FollowUp: These are your “bring forward” files, which you’ll want to check periodically. Use these folders to stow any message you’ve responded to, where you need to get a reply to your reply and want to remember to check back if you haven’t heard. You may have additional subfolders for:
    • ActionNeeded: Remember to do something else
    • ClientName: If you have a couple of major clients and want to see all your open loops each time you check in with them.
    • Waiting: You’re just waiting to hear back about these and don’t want to forget them.
  2. Lists: These folders catch e-newsletters and other bulk e-mails, and set them aside so that you can read them if and when you have time. You can setup subfolders for types of messages, or for specific lists, like:
    • Family: For newsletters from my kids’ school, daycare and afterschool programs.
    • HARO: For the Help A Reporter Out e-blast
    • WOC: For the Web of Change e-mail list
  3. Notifications: These collect all the automatic notifications generated by different web applications, like Facebook (which may notify you every time you get a friend request or a message, depending on your settings) or Twitter (which may notify you of every DM or new follower, again depending on your settings). You may choose to turn off notification in the application itself, but you may want to keep them in Gmail if you like the idea of scanning these notifications periodically in your e-mail, or keeping them so that they pop up if you search Gmail (so that searching Gmail for your friend Priscilla’s e-mail also turns up the DM she sent you on Twitter), or you simply can’t get the notifications to turn off. I use rules to stream some of my notifications into specific subfolders like:
    • Facebook: For anything from Facebook
    • Disqus: For notifications of blog comments sent via Disqus
    • Google Docs: For notifications that I’ve been invited into a new Google Doc (handy if I know someone has shared a doc with me, but I can’t figure out which of my Google addresses they’ve invited)
  4. OrganizationName: This is a folder for all the internal correspondence within your organization, which I recommend filtering so that you don’t miss the external e-mails that may be more time-sensitive or cost more to miss (if, for example, they are sales, media or donor inquiries). Making this work via filters depends on everyone in your organization having their e-mail addresses in the same domain (or a small number of them) so that you can filter on
    • ToMe: Messages to me from other people in my organization, that haven’t been marked urgent. This works if you are in a small company and/or the boss, so that you can tell other folks in your organization that they have to include the word “URGENT” in the subject of their e-mail if they want it to hit your inbox. If you run your own small company, this may well be the best way of ensuring your internal e-mail doesn’t crowd out sales or investor inquiries. Be sure to check your “OrganizationName/ToMe” mailbox every day.
    • CCed: For messages that have been sent by someone in your organization and cced (rather than addressed) to you.
  5. Scheduling: These collect all messages that have a calendar invitation attached. It’s a lot easier to review these once a day and handle your scheduling requests as a batch. If you have an assistant, you might ask them to keep an eye on these scheduling requests for you.
  6. ExternalCCs: Messages that are copied to you (for your information) are by definition not urgent. This folder collects messages that have bee sent from outside your organization and cced to you.
  7. Attachments: To save any message that came with an attachment (see filter #7)

Once you set up the labels above, you’ll be ready to get started on setting up your filters. You can add more labels anytime as described above, or by selecting “New label…” from the “Choose label” dropdown that Gmail offers as part of the “Create a filter” process.Gmail "create a filter" process offers option to create a new label

For the first few weeks after you set up your filters, you should quickly scan all of these folders every day, just to get a sense of what is landing there. This will help you fine tune your filters (perhaps adding a couple of rules to catch more messages, or adjusting the criteria so fewer messages get filtered out of your inbox) and to help you figure out how often you need to check each of these quasi-inboxes. My guess is that you’ll decide to ignore some of them completely (like notifications), check others on occasion (like your newsletters, if you have a few minutes to spare) and a couple every day (like your “followup/action needed”).