The worst things about email and how to fix them

For many, Gmail accounts have become less of a communication space and more of an endless pile Google gets to snoop through. Pandemic life has only made digging through the coupons, Zoom invites, newsletters and school assignments more fraught. A lot of important conversations have shifted to text, WhatsApp, Slack and Facebook, but that hasn’t done away with email … or made not responding any less impolite.

 Most consumer tech gets better over time. Why doesn’t email?

Gmail, with more than 1.5 billion accounts, and Outlook (which Microsoft won’t share numbers on) have used their scale to make important inroads against spam and security threats. But they’ve also focused on serving the lowest common denominator — no wonder most inboxes still just look like endless rows of text.

 Here are three of the worst things about email today, the clever ways Hey addresses them and some ways you can perform an inbox intervention. Email is so big, and our needs so diverse, I’d love to hear your ideas, too. We can hope Google, Microsoft and Yahoo borrow some.

Problem 1: Anybody can email you. And they do.

We all remember how revolutionary Gmail felt when it arrived in 2004. It gave you gobs of free storage and fast search so you didn’t have to organize or delete to find things. Hotmail and Yahoo eventually copied the keep-and-search approach.

Since then, the email tide became a tsunami assault on our attention. You can’t search for what you never even see. Every day in 2020, 306 billion business and consumer emails will be sent, according to the Radicati Group — up from 206 billion every day five years ago. Today our inbox is so overstuffed, we pay Google $20 per year for storage rather than clean it. Bad Wi-Fi is slowing you down. Fix yours without spending a dime.

Cutting out some senders feels good, even if it isn’t 100 percent effective. But it’s also the work — even after a month, some days we have to screen out five or more senders. And you can’t ban senders who send both marketing that you don’t need and receipts that you do. Still, our overall email load is a fraction of what it was before. If this idea appeals to you, consider making a clean break with a new account. You can hold on to an old one that you check infrequently or direct junky senders to. The people you care to hear from will learn your new address. None of the big free providers has a way to make screening mandatory, but there are some tools to help banish unwanted senders:

On Gmail, you’ll find a tiny “Unsubscribe” label next to the address of some, but not all, messages that should make future ones stop. Also, in the Web, if you tap the three dots on the top right side of a message, you can tap “Block,” which sends the sender to the spam folder. (Pressing “Mute” just makes that particular conversation thread go away.)

On Outlook there’s also an “Unsubscribe” label next to some messages and a special page (link here) where Microsoft gathers everything it suspects is a “subscription” in one place so you can say bye-bye.

Yahoo Mail makes a “Spam” button easy to get to at the top of the message but buries the “Unsubscribe” option under the three dots at the top right of a message. There you’ll also find a “block” sender, which keeps the sender from making it through at all.

 

Problem 2: Important stuff gets lost

Some email purists think we need to achieve “inbox zero” where every message is filed or deleted. That sounds exhausting. Of our unread emails, there are probably only a few dozen that we are interested in — or, would have been, if we’d seen them. How do we surface the right ones?

In 2013, Gmail introduced the idea that we should have more than one inbox. Under search in Gmail, you’ll see three tabs: Primary, Social and Promotions. Whenever email comes in, Google’s artificial intelligence decides where it should go, like the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts. Since 2018, it has also resurfaced emails you haven’t responded to but it thinks you should.

Microsoft introduced its magical sorting to Outlook in 2016 using two inboxes, Focused and Other. (Yahoo’s default is still just one long list.) In theory, AI can help surface what matters when most people don’t have the time to organize inboxes themselves. In practice, the AI flunks just often enough to make email even more of a mess. My Primary Gmail inbox is still cluttered with stuff I rarely read. (This being Google, the world’s biggest ad company, promotions get its default tab, but not newsletters.) And we know tech support folks who find Outlook’s Focused Inbox so unreliable, they make turning it off part of setting new accounts. You can try to make their AI smarter. On Gmail, you can turn on additional tabs for Updates and Forums in Settings, and Google says it gets better at sorting when you move messages between the tabs and reply to emails. Microsoft says you can teach Outlook what matters most by moving emails between Focused and Other.

Gmail offers a “Filter Messages Like This” option in the three-dot menu at the top of messages, where you chose how to sort by email address or, more helpfully than Hey, even keywords. Outlook makes it a bit easier with a button labelled “Sweep” at the top of every message. Tap it, then tell it to send that message and all future ones from that sender into a folder. You can also set up “Rules” to redirect messages based on things like words in the email. Yahoo Mail also has filtering tools available in the three-dot area on top of messages.

 

Problem 3: Your email isn’t private

Opening someone’s snail mail is a federal offence. Tech companies snooping on our email is not. Yahoo’s privacy policy makes it clear they’re using the contents of your correspondence for ads: It may “share certain analysed elements of your communications, such as keywords, package tracking and product identification numbers, with third-parties to enhance your user experience and personalize your ads and content.” Is anything off-limits? Yahoo didn’t respond to my questions. Yahoo takes away the ads if you pay $3.50 per month for its Pro version.

For most of Gmail’s life, it also used the contents of your messages to target you with ads. In 2017, Google said it would stop doing that and only target Gmail ads based on the giant trove of other personal data it has gathered about you. Microsoft says its ads are also targeted only on broad demographics and anonymized data from search. There’s no way to opt-out of ads on Gmail, even if you pay for extra storage. On Outlook, Microsoft takes away the ads if you get a $100-per-year subscription to Office 365. Google and Microsoft also mine your data to train their AI programs, which are growing money makers. When they watch us write emails or move between inboxes, we’re the worker bees making their software smarter. Gmail users can take a look at the creepy catalogue Google keeps of things you’ve bought, based on its AI reading your receipts. (When you grant them access, Google also allows outside companies — from price comparison apps to travel planners — to scan your email.)

To be sure, AI lets Gmail and Outlook do some nifty things, such as offering suggestions on how to write emails. But there’s no way to opt-out of their data mining. “The assistive experiences people have come to expect and rely on in email are only made possible through the use of AI and machine learning models,” Lynn Ayres, the general manager of Outlook, said in an email. You have to pay $100 per year for it, but Hey has no advertisements and promises not to mine our correspondence. There are some other privacy-preserving alternatives also.

There’s a lesson for us in that, too. We’ve come to assume email should be free. Turns out we get what we pay for.

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