Millennial Rants: Managing Your Email

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["Millennial Rants" is a new feature I'm starting to occasionally grumble about etiquette in the 21st Century. These posts are intended to be conversation starters. Feel free to chime in with disagreements, but just remember, all Millennials are stubborn, spoiled, and pretentiously assertive—case in point.]

Okay, let’s talk about email. Some might argue that it’s already becoming antiquated in the wake of social networking, but I think it has simply become the backbone of digital discourse. It’s so mainstream we don’t notice it in the same way, but I think it’s incredibly relevant.

The problem is that email is so omnipresent that I think many take it for granted, and thus don’t give it the attention it deserves. We can get so inundated with emails that we feel like we spend more time with it than we want to as it is. Remember the days when people’s email accounts would be full? It was only like 10 years ago. Cloud computing and webmail services have given us the greenlight to use as many emails as we damn well please. The advent of smartphones make it even easier to stay connected to your email accounts, such that we exchange emails at a faster rate than ever before.

What many folks don’t realize is how much time they could save (and stress they could relieve) if they took a few steps to be proactive about organizing their accounts. Services like Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Hotmail make this very easy. They’re free and it’s easy to create different email addresses for different purposes (I have several). Many businesses and universities are already using Gmail and other services. You can also create labels or folders to help you manage subscriptions. Take a few minutes to set up some keyword filters, and suddenly your Inbox won’t be so debilitating. Everything is organized automatically, whether you weed through and read them all or not.

This is particularly important when it comes to email listserves. Listserves are incredibly powerful tools for keeping people connected and allowing for discussions among people with a common purpose. Gmail makes listserves easier than ever with the way it threads emails so you can easily follow all the replies for a given subject without weeding through every email that comes in. Listserve organizers like Google Groups also archive threads, keeping all discussions organized even if you lose track of emails. (Google Wave was an attempt to create interactive discussions that were even more user-friendly, but it flopped; my personal experience was that the interface was to blame, not the actual potential benefits of the service.)

The big problem occurs when individuals who are part of listserves do not know how to organize their emails, and thus find themselves burdened by the quantity of emails they might get. Moderators of big listserves are then faced with an unnecessary challenge. On one hand, they want as many people to be a part of the list as possible, because the bigger the list, the more effective the list. Unfortunately, people who feel overwhelmed by the list can complain and even threaten to leave the list. This puts the moderator in the position of having to limit the functionality of the list by dictating who can post, how often they can post, and what kinds of posts are welcome and which aren’t. What’s worse is that the only way moderators can enforce these policies is by rescinding posting privileges or removing members from the list entirely.

The end result is that the list is less effective. People who are eager to contribute content or engage in discussions are faced with a listserve climate that is chilly. What good is a discussion group in which people don’t feel like they are free to participate? “If I share something that is relevant but unpopular, could I get kicked from the list?” “If people complain they’re getting too many emails, does that mean I can’t exchange in a back-and-forth dialogue on a particular topic?’ What should be a useful discussion group can be diminished to just a distribution list and the benefits of exchanging ideas with others is lost.

Don’t get me wrong, people can certainly over-post on lists. One user can hog a list and make it feel unwelcome or unhelpful for everybody else, so I certainly recognize there is etiquette to be addressed there. But discussion should not be stifled just because people don’t know how to organize or manage their email.

So manage your email, folks! It’s a menial task, but it’s one everybody should learn, just like balancing your checkbook or tying your shoes. You’re only going to get more email, so figure out a way that you can deal. You don’t want to become one of the curmudgeons who complain about too many emails, thus negating the very benefit of being able to exchange so much information.

Respond to the rant:

» Is it too much to ask for people to keep their email organized?

» What are your thoughts on listserve/discussion group etiquette? Should moderators enforce the etiquette or should members who join the group take responsibility for managing the emails they start to receive?

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