Our inboxes contain fundamental flaws that add stress and make us unhappy, but Chris Baraniuk discovers there may be ways to transform email forever.

Email has become so fundamental to our lives, that it can be difficult to see what’s wrong with it. Yet for many, it has long suffered from deep-rooted flaws that make people feel unhappy, stressed and overwhelmed.

As far back as 1998, the New York Times described how email inboxes were adding to the burdens of a constant multi-tasking lifestyle. “As the trill of cellular phones and beepers and signals for arriving email have grown more persistent, they have also become harder to ignore,” noted journalist Amy Harmon. The complaints that email is “overwhelming” or “broken” have only proliferated since. We were promised efficiency and timesaving, these voices cry, but now we’re busier.

So is there a better way? Could the email we live with today be improved or even replaced by something that makes us happier and healthier? Various companies and researchers are offering new ideas to transform email – and if they’re right about where we’re headed, there’s one technology on the horizon that will mean you may never have to check an inbox again.

Frustration with bulging inboxes has sparked various attempts to revolutionise them. However, in the past those efforts were rarely, if ever, met with success. “It’s a road paved with corpses,” admits Sean Beausoleil, lead engineer for email app Mailbox.

He cites Google Wave as one notorious example. Launched in 2009, Google Wave was touted as a revolutionary messaging platform which integrated instant messaging capabilities into email-like threads. Although popular with some, Wave never really caught on and was later criticised for trying to accomplish too many things at once.

Since Wave’s failure, attempts to re-think email may have been more modest, but they have certainly continued a tradition of experimentation. Shortmail, for example, was partly inspired by Twitter and limits emails to only 500 characters in length.

Some developers have focused on re-imagining the way email has traditionally worked, offering new functionalities such as the ability to “un-send” messages in Pluto, a service set up by two students from Harvard Law School.

Other approaches have placed an emphasis on clarity and productivity. There’s the simplified email interface of Inky, or the newly introduced “speed-reading” widget in Mailbird. Simply click a button at the top of a message and each word will be flashed on screen in quick succession so that you can read your email several times faster than normal.

The modern inbox is usually full to the brim with unread messages (Thinkstock)

The modern inbox is usually full to the brim with unread messages (Thinkstock)

For the Mailbox team, promising users the tranquillity of “inbox zero” has long been a part of the marketing strategy used to promote the app.

“We read about something called the Zeigarnik effect, which is basically how your brain gets tied up with things that are unfinished,” says Liz Armistead, a producer for Mailbox, as she explains how the app allows users to “snooze” emails so they can reappear later at a more convenient time. “Mailbox actually helps you to put things off so that you’re not taking up brain space on something that you can’t deal with right now.”

Beausoleil points out that many people’s frustration with email comes from having to manage so many competing interests in the same main inbox. Some messages require immediate action while others don’t. Some are for work, some are personal.

Because of this, some services now offer an alternative way to communicate with, say, your colleagues. Basecamp or Slack, for example, are online messaging tools for workplace teams to communicate away from the clutter of their inboxes.

Smart assistant

Others think that email’s next big evolutionary step will be driven by artificial intelligence – in fact, there’s evidence of this happening already.

Computer science professor Mark Dredze at Johns Hopkins University has long wondered whether artificial intelligence could be email’s greatest hope. In 2008 Dredze was a summer intern at Google. While working within the Gmail team he realised that many Googlers felt they would personally benefit from more intelligent inboxes which, for example, would be able to automatically highlight certain emails as more important than others. That same year, Dredze co-authored a paper on “Intelligent Email” which described the ways in which email clients could do more administrative legwork and signposting.

Among other things, Dredze and his co-authors suggested that email interfaces could be more helpful simply by “warning the user about missing attachments before sending the message.” Today, Gmail and other email providers do just that.

Gmail’s “priority” inbox also contains emails its algorithms think will be more important to you. Recently, Dave Troy, creator of Shortmail, took that algorithmic sorting concept a step further by introducing a service called Mailstrom. It gathers emails from myriad correspondents and threads together in bundles based on who sent them and what they appear to be about, and allows people to reply or delete hundreds or even thousands of messages with a few clicks. “Suppose you’re a college professor and you’ve received 20 messages from students asking about an assignment,” says Troy. “It would be relatively easy to put all those people in a bucket, send a response with a link, and you’ve dealt with it.”

The Mailbox email service is also getting smarter:  if emails from a certain sender always get archived immediately, for example, Mailbox will now ask permission to do that archiving for you.

In the movie Her, the main character has his emails handled by Samantha, a virtual assistant (Warner Bros.)

In the movie Her, the main character has his emails handled by Samantha, a virtual assistant (Warner Bros.)

Dredze imagines a future in which artificially intelligent personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s newly announced Cortana will, as part of their workload, keep an eye on your email for you. “The novel way to think about it is to imagine that there’s an automated person who’s trying to manage your life but who has access to your inbox,” he says.

Indeed, this is exactly what happens in the recent sci-fi film Her. Lead character Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is pleasantly surprised when his new, artificially intelligent operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), immediately offers to clear out several thousand old emails from his poorly maintained inbox. For the rest of the film she continues to flag up important messages whenever they come in, managing Theodore’s inbox for him. In fact, he never seems to have to check it himself. (He eventually becomes infatuated with Samantha, but that is perhaps more to do with her company than her email management.)

Is this the future of email? It would certainly be a curious development in the long history of electronic mail if our inboxes were eventually handed over to another, artificial intelligence. Perhaps this suggests, too, that our troublesome enslavement to email can never really be conquered at all – only passed on.

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