Work Ruined Email

It’s not too late to fix it.

Rose Wong

If you hate email, it’s probably because you work an office job where wrangling your messages is central to getting things done. Tasks arrive unbidden, dispatched impersonally from silent co-workers sitting mere feet away and stacked into a giant pile with no end.

It wasn’t always like this. In the past, managers might have used computers to create or review reports or ledgers. But the job itself remained elsewhere—on the phone with clients or prospects, in meetings with teammates or executives, and so on.

Email changed all that. The inbox became a to-do list, and everything started to flow through it. The ting of a new email elicits panic because it signals the arrival of a new toil: a new assignment from a boss, a request from a colleague, a policy notice from human resources, an announcement from management, a networking request from a stranger. You didn’t ask for any of these, but now you have to deal with them—even if just to press delete.

Email overload has become a backwards point of pride. “I get several hundred emails a day,” I heard someone say at a recent corporate event. “At least.” It’s a lamentation, but also a boast. Productivity signals personal value, and email offers an easy way to quantify it. Maintaining “inbox zero” is a display of willpower and efficiency, every new missive “triaged” as if the office were a military front or an emergency room. More recently, groupware programs such as Slack have tried to sublimate work email into chat rooms, but that works only inside an organization; there’s no stopping the email from outside customers, suppliers, or colleagues from arriving. As an old tech-industry aphorism puts it, email is the cockroach of the internet. It will outlast every technology fashion.

But what if all that received wisdom is wrong? Maybe the workplace has given email a bad rap. Office jobs made email a chore. But at home, email is something else: a heap of opportunities, mostly sent by businesses instead of friends and family. The problem isn’t getting through it, but figuring out which offers, notices, and invitations deserve attention and which can be ignored. Most popular email software, including Gmail and Outlook, is built for enterprise use first, which infects home email with the Sisyphean despair of the office. That’s finally changing, thanks in part to Yahoo and AOL, two old-school internet icons sold off for parts after newer tech darlings overtook them. Harnessing a legacy as consumer companies, they hope to wrest email from work’s oppressive grip by redesigning it for use at home.

Email first appeared in the 1970s, but it didn’t become widespread until after the internet was commercialized a quarter century ago. Instant, mass correspondence was a novelty—recall the jokes your uncle might have forwarded to his whole address book in the 1990s—and then it was a utility.

After the smartphone became ubiquitous, personal communication moved to messaging and apps. Texts and instant messages became a much better way to communicate with family and friends than email. Photo and file sharing, which used to account for a lot of personal email messages, was replaced by apps and social media.

That shift could have killed personal email entirely, but it ended up entrenching the technology even further. Everyone has an email address. That makes it an easy identifier: Rather than creating a new username for every app or website or service or shop, you can just plug in your email address, as constant and as innate as a fingerprint. It also makes email the easiest way for every organization, from global online retailers to local municipal offices, to get stuff into the hands of their customers and constituents.

As a result, almost all the email that people receive at their personal addresses—up to 90 percent of it—is sent by commercial sources. Bank statements and utility bills. Receipts and shipping notices from online purchases. Promotions and coupons from big-box stores and local restaurants. Newsletters and related subscriptions. When individual people do send messages, they are more likely to represent institutions anyway: a notice from the kids’ school, or an update from the homeowner’s association, for example. Unlike office emails, most of these messages can be ignored entirely without much consequence. The new problem is helping people figure out which ones deserve attention and action.

This new age of consumer email isn’t owned by Microsoft or even Google, but by Verizon, the old-guard telecommunications conglomerate. Over the past five years, the company has acquired the dregs of the dot-com economy that Facebook and others eviscerated. In 2015, it bought AOL for $4.4 billion. The next year, it scooped up Yahoo for another $4.5 billion. For technology-culture elites, these companies are a joke. An or email address is an embarrassing sign of digital frumpiness. But that’s not the case for the average consumer. Yahoo and AOL helped many ordinary folks first get online, or find their bearings there. “People just don’t feel strongly about the domain of their email account,” Josh Jacobson, the product lead for Yahoo Mail, tells me. “They don’t see it as representing who they are.” Email is just a service that they’ve used for a long time.

At the time of the Verizon acquisition, Marcel Becker had been working for years at AOL on mail software, first for personal use. To design it, Becker and his colleagues went to people’s homes all over the country and watched them use email.

The team saw that photo sharing was big, along with travel itineraries, receipts, and newsletters. But they also found that email programs were still stuck in a paradigm 20 years old: a list of messages, a literal representation of how the data get stored in a database with a spreadsheet-like view of the various fields. “We were treating all those types of information—from shared files to dining reservations—the same way,” Becker says.

The biggest revelation was that few people knew how to search their email. Becker recalls standing behind a woman at the airport who was frantically looking for her boarding pass. “I could feel her anxiety as she approached the security agent,” he tells me. During a home visit, a woman wanted to show Becker’s team some photos she had been sent by a friend. But she had no idea what to search for. Without better strategies, people were just searching for something—“United,” say, or the photo-sharing friend’s name—and scrolling hopefully. People adapted where email software had not. They started taking screenshots of boarding passes or coupons so they could find them more easily.

This is a dumb way to use computers, which are capable of organizing information in more ways than just in lists and search results. So Becker and his team, still at AOL, created a product called Alto Mail that did just that. Instead of dumping messages into one endless list, or requiring users to organize it themselves into folders (few do), Alto automatically sorted them into virtual stacks, just like people tend to do with physical mail: This is a bill, this is a catalog, this is trash, and so on. Each stack looked and worked differently, depending on the content it contained. “We organized email for our users so they didn’t have to,” Becker says.

Meanwhile, over at Yahoo, a team run by Jacobson had been pursuing a similar effort. Like AOL, Yahoo has always been a consumer-facing company, and that allowed it to see trends Google and Microsoft missed. The latter companies make money, in part, by licensing email software to companies, which pay big fees for email systems that integrate with calendar, file sharing, and office-suite applications.

But regular folks don’t want to organize their private lives as if they were office jobs. “In the workplace, if you want to host an event, you create a calendar invitation,” Jacobson explains. “But our users don’t like sending calendar invites for personal use.” Instead, they had developed work-arounds, sending reminders by forwarding an email to themselves or to a friend. That just creates more emails, of course, further gumming up everyone’s inbox. So the Yahoo team started scanning emails for these patterns.

Yahoo’s isn’t the only email client that does this. Apple’s and Google’s email programs also look for things such as airline receipts or hotel and dinner reservations, but mostly by trying to turn them into calendar entries—another artifact of office work. Google also released a program called Inbox, which scanned messages and tried to organize them by topic, like travel. The company shut down Inbox earlier this year, portraying the program as an R&D lab for Gmail rather than a stand-alone service built for different uses.

Yahoo Mail has gone further than its competitors. Signs of an event or an appointment can cause the system to offer to set a reminder. A flight itinerary or hotel reservation can be flagged and then highlighted on the day of travel. Coupons can be virtually clipped, and the system stores them in one place, like the paper coupons that used to go in a wallet in the kitchen drawer. Yahoo’s software can even remind you when the coupon is about to expire.

Now that Alto and Yahoo Mail have merged inside Verizon’s media division, the consumer-email effort has accelerated. The service works with Gmail and Outlook, too, not just with Yahoo and AOL addresses. The coupon-clipping feature has been expanded into a whole grocery service, which flags deals from stores such as Safeway and Dollar General and gives Yahoo email users the ability to store them on frequent-shopper cards. Becker’s team also works with corporate senders, including the grocers, to mark up their bulk messages in a way that allows the software to understand them better.

It’s in everyone’s best interest if corporate senders dispatch fewer, more relevant messages. And new technologies are also making it easier for companies to replace the contents of a message with newer information on the fly. For example, Pinterest has started sending emails in which recipients can explore a gallery within the email itself; real-estate agencies could do the same when they send out listings. Or a retailer could update a deal that has expired with a new one when the email actually gets opened several days later. “Senders are realizing they need to do this to help their reputation from an anti-spam perspective,” Becker explained to me, “but it also helps their messages rise to the top. Less crap, more important things.”

Chris Royer, a designer on the Yahoo Mail team, has adopted an almost spiritual summary of this ethos. “Email is the business of your life,” he says. People cannot escape email; they still need it to use a bank account online, to sign up for Instagram, to check out from Amazon. But also, they don’t particularly want to give it up. They want to get bank statements and shipping notifications and all the rest. And email lets them do it all in one place.

That’s because email is the last gasp of information technology not under a single corporation’s close control. Ian McCarthy, whose team runs Yahoo’s email grocery feature, sees email as the ultimate open marketplace, where people connect with organizations because they choose to do so. On email, people have greater control over their identities and relationships than they do on social media or messaging apps. Maybe more than anywhere else online.

That means the unholy pile of emails people receive at home isn’t a problem like it is at work. The recipient—that’s you—requested all those messages, by signing up for accounts, by making purchases, by subscribing to lists. Sometimes you get on lists you don’t mean to, but the design and language around email can wrongly imply that every message is unwarranted.

“That’s my junk account,” some Yahoo users tell Jacobson during his research visits to their homes, or “That address is just for spam.” Intrigued, he asks them how often they use it. “Oh, many times a day!” Just as you call catalogs “junk mail” before poring over them intently at the kitchen counter, so “spam email” is merely a received term for an unsorted inbox. If something really does go wrong and the messages overwhelm or abuse you, you can always get a new email address. And because nobody owns email, it will always work with all the other addresses.

Perhaps the “cockroach of the internet” could yet liberate people from the walled gardens of tech, where big companies dictate how a service works from end to end. Most often, that means charging businesses to advertise to consumers, from whom they simultaneously extract data to target those ads. By contrast, email looks downright earnest. It’s hard to hear it over the din of more spectacular technologies, but the email you get from Safeway or Best Buy represents the satisfying hum of what McCarthy calls “declared relationships” between people and businesses.

Risks accompany that promise. For one, all this increased convenience can come at the expense of user privacy. Earlier this year, Google faced criticism for keeping track of items users had purchased, extracted from emailed receipts. And a hot new work-email app called Superhuman got into trouble for tracking recipient locations. Given that pattern, people might not want the meaning of their email messages to be seen, even by robots. Asked about these concerns, the Yahoo team pointed me to a confusing “Privacy Dashboard” and said users value convenience more highly. “Yes, people want privacy,” a company spokesperson told me, “and of course we make sure they get it, but they also want personalization, discounts, and other innovations when they’re genuinely useful.”

It sounds like the vague redirection you’d hear from any tech company. But Yahoo and AOL embody a different ethos than the bigger, more data-mercenary companies that replaced them. They do make money from ads, but at a level dwarfed by Google, Facebook, and even Amazon. And unlike Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, they don’t operate big enterprise-services divisions, which make lots of money helping businesses rather than consumers.

There’s also the risk that email-management services such as Gmail Inbox and Yahoo Mail could subsume email into yet another proprietary solution, even if the underlying send-and-receive technology remains open. After all, the open standards that make internet and web traffic flow still drive closed services such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If emails become more machine-readable than human-readable, could that same fate befall even seemingly earnest efforts like Yahoo’s, no matter how “declared” the relationships that give rise to them?

McCarthy doesn’t think so, partly because there’s such robust competition among email clients and services. No email sender is going to choose to draft messages so they work only with Yahoo (or Gmail, or Outlook, or Apple Mail)—everyone wants to be able to reach anyone’s inbox. Yahoo Mail is an underdog too: It represents 6.3 percent of email clients, versus Apple’s 43.6 percent, Google’s 30.3 percent, and Microsoft’s 11.4 percent. Any pressure Yahoo puts on Apple Mail and Gmail—let alone services like Facebook Messenger, which are also responsible for absconding with personal communications—helps ensure the overall health of email. “The more we can create value, even if it’s unique to our client or channel, that means that businesses will continue to use email in general,” McCarthy says. “And if those businesses think that email remains a viable channel for marketing, then email also acts as a retardant on the flame of WhatsApp, Instagram, and others.” If anything, email itself is the underdog, working against the closed platforms. Its future is as fragile as it is promising.

For now, at least, you are still in charge of the business of your life. Away from work, no boss or corporation can tell you what to do with your personal emails. Yahoo is betting that the choices you’ll make at home will involve reading email less and letting the computer read it more. The contents of your inbox would change from messages to latent resources, offers, and invitations.

As Yahoo and others coerce more businesses to change how they format and send emails, swarms of text-processing robots will get better at chewing through the meaning of messages on your behalf. Email programs will offer more bespoke features to make sense of them. That means giving up some control, which can produce understandable anxiety. It’s possible that email programs could suppress or accelerate certain messages over others, but the variety of senders, clients, and content—along with the inherent privacy of email and its far lower viral spread than social media—gives that risk less exposure than public posts on YouTube or Facebook. Some comfort can be found in good precedents: Spam filters have been deciding, for a long time, which emails you don’t need to see, with considerable success. But real consolation arrives only if you can abandon the bad obsession with email that the office has engendered. Email is a whole different animal at home—one you want to do the minimum to manage, but no more.

To see email as an infestation is to give it more power than it deserves. It’s just a thing that happens to everyone, like traffic or errands or yard work. As Royer says, when it comes to email, you hope not to think about it. And actually, that’s probably the same attitude you already take toward cockroaches.