Some emails are more equal than others

You might have seen the news today that Google launched a priority email feature within Gmail.  I am still using Microsoft Exchange for the vast bulk of my emails so I haven’t been able to experience the power of Google’s offering myself, but Jason Kincaid on Techcrunch thinks ‘it’s fantastic’.

This is a feature I would love to have in my email client, and I hope that it comes to Outlook soon, maybe via a plugin.  I have to process a couple of hundred emails per day (excluding spam) and whilst most days I’m successful in getting to Inbox zero every week there is a day or two when I fail in that ambition.  When that happens I spend increasing amounts of time searching through my Inbox for important mails – which is a real drag, particularly given that the reason I haven’t got to Inbox zero is that I’m going through a busy patch.  So a priority email feature in Outlook would really help me.

The thing that interests me more about this development is the way it will change email usage.  If our email clients start telling us that certain emails are important, and therefore others are not, then we are going to spend less time reading the unimportant ones.  For many ‘Inbox zero’ will become ‘Inbox zero for the important emails and check the others once per week’.  Then ‘check the rest once per week’ will become ‘once per month’, then ‘once every three months’ and so on.  Ask yourself when you last checked your spam folder.

Some people have already declared ’email bankruptcy’ and given up on getting back to everyone who has emailed them.  As we all get more and more email more it is inevitable that more and more people will take this step.  Google Priority Mail will accelerate that trend.

People already treat their Facebook and Twitter feeds like this, so it is a small step to get happy with emails flowing through our systems without getting seen.

I don’t think this is a bad development.  I buy into the ‘river of news’ concept first explained to me by Stowe Boyd.  The ‘river of news’ idea is that in the age of information overflow we can’t hope to stay on top of everything that happens but we shouldn’t worry about that, because if something is important multiple sources will bring it to our attention. Therefore, if it is important we will see it at some point, so long as we keep a reasonably close eye on our news and message feeds.

As an example – I try to keep an eye on Techcrunch and Techmeme and catch most deals when they are announced via those websites.  If I miss something there, I often learn about it via email from a friend or someone related to the deal.  If I don’t hear about it via email, sooner or later someone will tell me face to face, or I will read an article about something else which mentions it.  I can’t think of an occasion recently when a deal of even minor importance has happened and I haven’t heard about it somewhere within a day or two.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post I am still using Exchange.  In fact our whole partnership is using Exchange and it wouldn’t be straightforward for me to switch to Gmail if I want to, and much as this might not be the fashionable thing to say, I’m not sure I want to switch.  I have a Gmail account I use for some personal mail, and in my experience, for the volumes of emails I read and write Outlook is still quicker – I have also read blog posts from Fred Wilson and others complaining about slow response times from Gmail. 

I take a lot of care to keep my laptop running fast, including regular rebuilds of the entire machine, and I do that because performance is incredibly important to me.  I do lot of stuff (mostly blogs, web apps and email) and it drives me nuts when my machine and/or services run slowly, because it means I don’t get through my work.  Worse still, poor response times can sap my motivation to get stuck into tasks like clearing email backlog.