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1998 | 07 | 12 | Technology | News Coverage
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The New York Times: You've Got (Too Much) Mail
July 12, 1998


Sometimes, Tom Rielly gets so overwhelmed by the endless struggle with his e-mail in-box that he has to get up from the computer and just breathe. “I take an e-mail time out, by getting up and moving away from my screen,” said Rielly, the chairman and CEO of the Web site PlanetOut. Though the first thing he does in the morning is check his e-mail, and though he deals with it “20 or 30 times a day,” Rielly said he feels like he never really gets a handle on the digital flood. “It’s kind of a sport for me to see if I can keep my e-mail basket empty,” he said. “It’s a losing battle, like playing Tetris, sort of like spinning plates. At some point they fall down.” Keeping those plates spinning is part of the challenge of the Internet age. For those who get a lot of it, managing e-mail can become an obsession.

“I don’t juggle my e-mail, I stagger under it,” said Barry Golson, the editor-in-chief of Yahoo Internet Life magazine. “Though I’ve noticed a certain status-y competition among people about how much e-mail they get — you know, like discussions about whose cell phone is smaller.” Perhaps a more productive competition would be one for most innovative e-mail management strategy.

Stewart Ugelow, the 22-year-old co-founder of the Web site, could win the “most unwired” award. He has copies of all his e-mail routed to a pager. “It really has saved me from having to compulsively check my e-mail,” he said. “I’m in airports, I see people toting their laptops, and I don’t have to wait for any of that — I do a triage and pull out the pager when I have a minute.” Only the first 250 characters of each message get through to the beeper, he said, but that’s enough to get a flavor of what the e-mail is about — and to determine whether it needs an immediate response via phone. Less urgent messages can wait until Ugelow returns to the office. Responding via two-way pager would be “overkill,” he said. Another way Ugelow manages the flow of mail is by having two different e-mail addresses. One is for mailing lists and Web sites that require registration; the other is “restricted to people.” Only the “people” messages get forwarded to his pager. “I get 10 to 20 messages on my people account each day, and most of those I have to return,” he said. “I get upwards of a hundred on the other, but I know they’re not as important.”

Most people seem to use the “trash” approach to reading their mail. Golson systematically roots through his in-box, deleting the fat: any obvious spam, anything forwarded, anything resembling a public-relations pitch. Then he sorts through the legitimate stuff.

Filters are a godsend for many. A feature in most e-mail programs, filters can automatically sort, discard or forward incoming messages using criteria specified by the user. There are those, however, who suffer fear of deletion. Bryce Jasmer, a senior system engineer at a large web company who handles a thousand pieces of e-mail a day, said it took some time to get over the worry that the complex system of filters he uses to sort through his mail might inadvertently throw out or misplace something important.

Jasmer uses a special program that a friend wrote to manage the hundreds of pieces of mail he gets each day at his “six or seven” e-mail addresses, which all flow into one central box. “My filter file is a hundred lines long at least,” he said.

Filtering could be Henry Bar-Levav’s middle name. His desk at the Manhattan design firm he founded, Oven Digital, is the picture of the modern, paperless office; on it sit two neat laptops and not much else.

Bar-Levav mans his e-mail throughout the day as if he were an air-traffic controller keeping close watch over incoming and outgoing planes — and in a sense he is, routing information to his staff from the corner of a giant loft.

In order to organize all of the e-mail that crosses his virtual desktop, Bar-Levav keeps a labyrinth of electronic in-boxes. As messages come in, a phalanx of filters routes them to specific mailboxes. He also uses different colors to highlight the priority or sender of various messages. All of this correspondence would consume countless file folders and file cabinets if it weren’t electronic.

The absence of paper throughout Oven Digital’s office makes Bar-Levav proud; to him, it’s what working in the digital age is all about. Embracing the paperless office is something only younger workers do easily, said Lisa Kanarek, a professional organizer. An inherent mistrust of digital storage fuels a behavior she frequently encounters in her clients: the printing out and physical filing of e-mail messages. In particular, she remembers sifting through the material and digital clutter of one particular client and finding a printed copy of a company-wide e-mail message granting employees an extra day off the previous Christmas — housed in its very own manila folder. “How much time and effort did it waste to do that?” she marveled.