Why I Often Fail to Read Your Emails

I get a lot of email, and I get a lot of spam (a couple of my Gmail accounts collect thousands a month). Very little spam gets through to my primary account – perhaps a couple of dozen a day, because Gmail’s Bayesian filters are exceptional.

Plenty of other trash does get through, however. Images of cute animals, dumb lists of things about which I couldn’t care less, those awful nostalgia mailings… all sorts of stuff.

Because my time is more valuable to me than some of my correspondents’ seems to be to them, I have a few little tests that control how I handle my mail. You might consider them for your own use, and if you’re one of the folks who emails me, it might explain why you get fewer responses than you expect.

  • Subject line: If it contains Fw: Fw: Fw:, this is funny, LMAO, So True, Hi, or other non-specific stuff – forget it. It goes straight to the trash. In fact, I have filters set up to get the Fw: stuff; I never even see it. If you want me to read what you send, use the subject line to tell me what it’s about. That’s what it’s for. It’s your one chance to get my attention. If you can’t bother to inform me what’s in the email, it’s not important enough for me to read.
  • Attachments: Gmail shows thumbnails of all the attachments. If your offering contains more than two or three photos of cute animals it gets trashed without opening. The technical term for this stuff is “glurge.” Next to spam, it’s the number one problem on the Net. It eats up people’s time – the most important thing they have – and Internet bandwidth that someone has to pay for.
  • Links are good. Send links, and tell me what they’re about! I really enjoy making up my own mind about what I want to read. Makes me feel powerful… and far more serene.
  • Photography is my hobby; I used to get paid for it. Spare me the pictures of garish sunsets, purple dolphins in a turquoise sea, and all the puppy dogs and kitty cats. This is a good photograph. If it meets that standard, send it along by all means.
  • If I want inspiration, I have several books by the Dalai Lama. I’m not interested in something forwarded to you by the woman who casts your horoscope.
  • I don’t respond to pleas to sign petitions, forward email to benefit cancer victims, etc., because all that stuff is bogus! Take the time to check it out at snopes.com. Don’t have time? I don’t, either. Don’t send me something that might do some good, or might be accurate. Check it out, or don’t waste my time with it.
  • Forget the politics and religious stuff. Politically, I’m Progressive. Religion-wise, I’m an agnostic Buddhist; I don’t know, you don’t either, and if you don’t meditate you’re not listening.
  • Know that if your offering is biased racially, ethnically, or with respect to gender, it’s going in the trash… and I’ll be the judge. Your email address may follow. I find that stuff painful, and it causes me to think a great deal less of you personally.
  • Send simple, unformatted text. I like to decide what’s important for myself, without a bunch of boldface, underlining, caps, and other insults to my intelligence. If your email looks like a cheesy advertisement, I’ll treat it like one.
  • Email accounts are free, for goodness’ sake! Get one of your own, and use it. Shared accounts are awkward at best, and can cause embarrassment at worst. Go on – you deserve it.
  • If you’re passionate about something, go do something about it! Then write to me and tell me what you did. I know the world’s a tough neighborhood. What are you doing to improve it? Now that’s interesting!

Email is a wonderful thing, when it’s used to impart useful or interesting information, or to forge real connections. Unfortunately, 99% of it is garbage. Why? Because people don’t think before they send or forward. If you had to write it out by hand, then take it to the mailbox and spend 41 cents to mail it, you’d be more respectful because it was your time and effort.

Why not be just as respectful of mine?

[tags]glurge, trash email, mass forwarding, spam, email etiquette[/tags]


  1. Steve Henthorn says:

    In the 11.22.06 issue of Lockergnome, I found your commentary (titled ‘Why I Often Fail to Read Your Emails’) very interesting and thought provoking. However, I have a bit of a problem w/ 1 section, as follows:

    “Send simple, unformatted text. I like to decide what’s important for myself, without a bunch of boldface, underlining, caps, and other insults to my intelligence. If your email looks like a cheesy advertisement, I’ll treat it like one.”

    I personally don’t mind that others insinuate their feelings, preferences and biases into their e-mails by fomatting their message. This is 1 way that I get a feeling for their passion about a subject. Also, it also helps me decide about their intent.

    As 1 who offers publishing services to others, I’m not overly fond of messages w/ excessive formatting, particularly if they doesn’t follow established rules: # of fonts; excessive use of punctuation marks (!!! is the worst); etc. But, this just serves as a warning… the sender really has no clue as to what they’re doing.

    I’m sorry that you find formatting an insult to your intelligence. I would be very hesitant to discuss any subject w/ you, for fear that it would also insult your intelligence, simply from the standpoint that my opinion might be radically different than yours.

    Your opinions, and the way you express them, are important to me. I regret very much that mine (& others) aren’t important to you.

    Oh, BTW: the e-mail format for Lockergnome, in which your column appears, is very heavily formatted.

    Thanks for your opinion. And don’t ever let anyone else tell you what and how you can express yourself.

    (I’m sorry if this ofends you.)

  2. RW Driskill says:

    I agree with the majority of your column. My attempt to cure the problem was to open another Gmail account “badmail”, “trashmail”, notgoodmail”, something along that line. Now whenever I have to give out my email address for something I suspect will end up generating spam, glurg, or mass forwarded stuff, that’s the address I give out. I know I can just delete the whole thing when I check it every couple of days. As it is, I still receive 500 – 600 junk mails in that couple of days, but at least it’s not at my good email address.

  3. Bill Webb says:

    I’m always amused–sometimes amazed–by the posts that engender “heartfelt” responses, especially those that involve so much reading between the lines by the responders.

    My opinions are only my opinions, and I don’t expect anyone to share them, nor necessarily agree with them. Perhaps, Steve, if you received as many email messages a day to which you must respond as do I, you would be a bit more sympathetic. On the other hand, that doesn’t really matter.

    As to how you derive from my writing that I have a problem with ideas which differ from mine, I have to admit confusion. Because I express mine forcefully does not by any means imply that I am unwilling to listen to others, any more than yours (presumably) indicates the same bias.

    I was simply revealing the rules that I use when choosing which electronic communications to attend. Your reply reveals far more. I wonder why it affected you so strongly. Interesting.

    RW: I use the same method, with several Gmail accounts feeding into one, which answers them using the original address. However, after perusing several thousand pieces of junk mail and finding fewer than .01% mistakes, I finally began ignoring them altogether. Now they just delete themselves when their 30 days expire and I don’t have to pay any attention to them at all. On the off chance that I should miss something that I’m expecting, I can either go look, or someone will resend it anyway.

    Thanks, both of you, for writing, and Happy Thanksgiving.


  4. Jamws B Hawkins says:

    I can’t imagine who woild be emailing Mr Webb. Anybody with a personality that affected can’t have many friends wanting to connect with him – what a bore!

  5. Jim Agema says:

    Amen Bill! Thanks for an excellent insight into the spam/unsolicited advertising email problem and the wasting of time going through it all. Major companies are losing millions of dollars each year due to this problem of wasted employee time and effort. Anyone who operates a website business knows all too well how much time is lost and important emails misplaced or deleted as a result of this problem. I have a selected list of people that I allow to send me such items and if I do send anything other than personal/business correspondence, I send an advance email seeking their permission to send items of a certain nature and/or subject. This assures me they are OK with receiving that type of email and that I am NOT wasting their time or even mine. Common courtesy is still the best policy.

  6. Bill Webb says:

    Thanks, Jim.

    Isn’t it interesting how people seem to feel as though they can’t communicate without bringing personalities into it? Lots of angry folks in the world.


  7. Bill Webb says:

    Dear Jamws,

    People email me because I offer services they want and need. If they find me affected, it doesn’t stop them from giving me money, so I guess it’s not much of a problem.

    I date waaayy back, to a time when well-educated people learned to express themselves with precision. If that’s affectation, then I embrace it.


  8. Linda Williamson says:

    I serve on a political committee as information officer, and have blocked people because even after politely explaining to them why I cannot receive their emails with heavy graphics, prayers, chain letters, etc. (I’m using a clunky old Dell with a 200mhz processor due to lack of funds) they still send that junk. I never thought of setting up a “badmail” account. Thanks for the suggestion, and thankyou for the article.

  9. jill says:

    If someone forwards something to you she believes that you may like it and is sharing something that she enjoyed. The least you can do is to inform her that she is mistaken so that she takes you off her mailing list. Why rant about it? But the value addition by adding comments to forwards is a good idea to adopt.
    Jille Jaque

  10. BIll Webb says:

    If I receive an email, and I send it to ten people, and they each send it to ten people, by the sixth iteration there have been one million emails sent. This kind of thing is, next to spam itself, the single biggest cause of Internet congestion. It wastes bandwidth, and ultimately we all end up paying…in money and in reduced performance.

    Now, let’s assume that each of those million people spends one minute involved with the reception and forwarding. That’s one million minutes — almost 17,000 hours — of lost productivity. From one email. And remember, I said 10 people; many folks forward to fewer, but many also send to a lot more.

    I’m sorry. People who know what they’re doing on the Net don’t foward that crap, and I see no reason for being nice to your friend. She (and he) should know better.