You Probably Write a Novel's Worth of Email Every Year

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The Great Gatsby, sitting in your outbox

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Shutterstock/Ninell and The Atlantic

So we know that the average worker spends 13 hours a week -- 28 percent of office time -- on email. Which multiplies out to (eek) 650 hours a year.

But what does that time investment look like as physical -- well, "physical" -- output? How does it amass as words typed and sent and otherwise generated?

Here's one estimate: 41,638 words. That's per the personal assistant app Cue, which integrates services like contacts, calendars, and especially email -- and which recently released data based on a sampling of its users in 2012. While the average number of email messages each user received last year was (a relatively modest) 5,579 -- and the average number of those messages each user sent was (an also modest) 879 -- the output of words sent was comparatively colossal. To put those 41,638 discrete pieces of communication in perspective, that word count, in the aggregate, is roughly equivalent to a novel that is 166 pages in length. (The industry standard for page length is 250 words per page.) Which makes the average Cue user's email output slightly greater than The Old Man and the Sea (127 pages long), slightly less than The Great Gatsby (182 pages), and just about equal to The Turn of the Screw (165 pages).

And while the 41,000+ digital word count is based on one data set from one source -- caveat typer -- it certainly tracks, at least, with my own inbox. (In fact, it strikes me as fairly conservative). And it's worth considering, as well, what the Cue data are actually measuring: not just words typed and sent, but energy expended. Those 41,000 words are 41,000 words' worth of time and effort and creativity that we've invested in manufacturing the industrial product that is email -- the social artifact that is made to be shared and yet that is ultimately defined by privacy. If an inbox is a publication, so is an outbox: a media product, distributed and broadcast in the purest sense. It's a publication we invest in, with daily dedication. And yet it's a publication that is visible, in the aggregate, to its author alone -- The Turn of the Screw, with an audience of one. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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