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The strange allure (and false hope) of email bankruptcy

E-Mail Reply to All: 'Leave Me Alone' - washingtonpost.com

"Email bankruptcy" was a term I first heard in the context of Lawrence Lessig deciding to throw in the towel by telling everyone to whom he owed email that he was starting over (and that important stuff should be sent again).

Last week, the Washington Post had an article on the practice that traces its origin (or at least its naming) to the end of the last decade:

The term "e-mail bankruptcy" may have been coined as early as 1999 by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studies the relationship between people and technology.

Professor Sherry Turkle said she came up with the concept after researching e-mail and discovering that some people harbor fantasies about escaping their e-mail burden.

Turkle, who estimated that she has 2,500 pieces of unread e-mail in her inbox, is one of those people. A book she has been working on for a decade is coming out soon. Turkle joked that it would have taken her half the time to write it "if I didn't have e-mail."

The wonderful access to one another that email gives (or, put differently: that it causes us to cede) can be a great thing. But I have to admit that bankruptcy alone may not even be enough to save me (or you).

A one-time erasure of communication debt would give temporary relief, but the basic challenge remains; the net number of requests for my attention exceeds my ability to provide that attention by at least an order of magnitude. And the disparity around my ability to thoughtfully respond to my pile may be ten or more times worse still. The scale is insanely out of whack.

If I answered email to my public accounts for half of each working day, I'd still have to be sending mostly superficial "thanks for the note" responses. Writing a real email response takes -- what? -- five or ten minutes? Does for me, anyway. So I could substantively answer about ten emails per hour? The time it takes for another batch of 10-20 new messages to replace them? Ay yi yi.

I don't know what the solution is apart from just trying to manage expectations. But how do you relate the scale of your debt without resorting to melodrama and without looking like a stuck-up douche nozzle? I do not know, but I do know that the problem is way more than theoretical.

Every message is a pebble

Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn't take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that's taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can't handle that one tiny thing. "What 'pile'? It's just a fucking pebble!"


I'm not prepared to declare bankruptcy just yet, but if you were kind enough to email me a pebble some time over the last few months, there's a very good chance that I still haven't found the time to do something appropriately nice with it. Which makes me feel awful. I sincerely apologize if your lovely pebble is still in my very large pile.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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