Is Pay Email the Solution to Inbox Overload?

PC Mag’s John C. Dvorak contends that people have stopped responding to their email, and that social networking sites like Facebook aren’t the solution. What would be? Dvorak thinks the salvation of email would be making it a pay service, with the fees applied in micro-payment tolls.

I have to say that from my perspective as a web worker, Dvorak’s take on email seems to be excessively jaundiced. He claims it no longer works even as well as snail mail, and that due to volume, even after spam filtering, he often misses important messages, that numerous people have given up on email, with the worst cases being being various people he tries to get on his show. Few such individuals actually respond to email any more, declares Dvorak, the rest having decamped to Twitter and Facebook. He notes that even among those folks whose Twitter accounts he can access, he often still gets no response, deducing that many people have simply removed themselves from the email grid and retreated to Facebook, with which he refuses to get involved, dismissing it as a hangout for college kids and old ladies. I’m inclined to agree that Facebook is not a place I want to go. Where do people find the time? Presumably in some cases by ignoring their email. However, I consider that to be a cultural Facebook/Twitter problem and a matter of misplaced priorities rather than a structural email problem.

I also agree with Dvorak about the lameness and tediousness of email verification systems, but not so much with his proposal to use Paypal or some other micropayment operation as an alternative to free email, obliging users to pay a toll in order for the intended recipient to actually get the message — kind of like a reverse postal service, which he thinks would eliminate all spam and minimize useless email. Dvorak acknowledges that newsletter and listserv users would be hurt by his proposal (I administer a listserv, and it would be toast with any sort of for-fee email gatekeeping in place), unless there was a “subscribe” flag that would allow newsletter distributors to send out group emails without the fee.

The idea sounds complex to me, an administrative nightmare with more nickel and dime expense on top of already exorbitant broadband and wireless fees. Complexity usually preempts popular adoption. Dvorak acknowledges this, noting that “The real difficulty would be the creation of mechanisms that would actually be adopted. It would have to begin as some sort of standard adopted by a lot of big ISPs.” That’s a mighty steep hill to climb.

Perhaps someday a system like the one John Dvorak is proposing will be implemented. I hope not, and in the meantime, there are ways to deal with the inbox tsunami so that keeping in front of it isn’t nearly as tedious and time–consuming. Frankly, I haven’t experienced the sort of email communication breakdown Dvorak complains of. I don’t doubt his account, but I find people do answer my emails, and I am usually able to answer theirs with reasonably prompt dispatch.

My first line of defense is that I have a bunch of e-mail accounts — something over 20 in total, but about a dozen that I use actively. Some of these addresses I only divulge to people I really want to hear from, and to whom I want to be accessible without delay. That, combined with Gmail, GMX Mail, and Yahoo! Mail’s respective smart spam filtering keeps inbox overload quite manageable.

Secondly, I find it helpful to be able to check server inbox content via a POP3 inbox check utility prior to downloading messages to my hard drive or even going to the webmail inbox (Gmail and GMX offer free POP support). I use a little application called Mail Beacon, which is no longer being developed, but good alternatives are the shareware POPMonitor and open-source (donationware) MyPopBarrier. Those are Mac applications, but I assume that similar utilities are available for Windows and Linux. A big advantage of these programs is that they quickly display a list of current inbox content, allowing you to cull spam and other junk before opening a single message. The trying–too–hard sales pitch, or just plain bizarre subject lines and dodgy return addresses are usually a dead giveaway. Typically, my web persona inbox will contain 80 to 150 incoming messages on a check, of which all but 10 or 15 will be obvious spam, promotions, or press releases I will be giving a pass. Delete the dross, and you have a manageable number of messages to deal with. It takes a bit of time management discipline, but it’s really not that time-consuming once you get into the habit.

What do you think of Dvorak’s proposal? Would pay email help to reduce email overload?

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Email: The Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Image by Flickr user 10ch, licensed under CC 2.0

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