February 19, 2013

1,000-0 Email Users: A Digital Humanities Problem

Filed under: digital humanities,writing — jrice @ 8:26 am

My email inbox has 1,593 messages in it. I say that knowing that the goal of many email users is to have zero messages in their inbox. A recent Lifehacker post narrates one such goal. “Inbox zero is a lofty and often unachievable dream for most,” the post states, “and for a long time I just assumed that piles of email would rule my life.”  I call the tellers of such email narratives the “1,000-0″ email users. They are typically individuals who have about 1,000 messages in their inbox, and they want zero. They tell the 1,000-0 narrative in order to share their major achievement of eliminating all that unwanted email taking up space in their virtual inbox. A Chicago Tribune writer tells this narrative. A ProBlogger post tells this narrative. 1,000-0 is the goal of the story’s outcome. 1,000-0 is the story of victory agains the odds.

I have 1,593 messages in my inbox. This number does not reflect all the email stored in my Thunderbird program, nor the messages saved on my other laptop, which also has a Thunderbird installation and which I spark up every now and then for a file not transferred to my new(er) laptop. My trash folder, on the other hand, has 5,476 messages in it, a number that makes my inbox look puny and insignificant. Even with 1,593 inbox messages, I have deleted 5,476 messages – messages that could easily return to my inbox without much notice. Why I deleted 5,476 messages and kept 1,593 messages is not entirely clear to me, but something indicated to me to allow many of my messages to be deleted, or at least moved to a folder called “trash.”

Unlike the stories associated with email glut,I  don’t fee that email rules my life. In fact, hours go by without a single email arriving in my inbox. Even though I do some administrative work (it’s over 20% of my DOE), I don’t get that much administrative email. Even though I’m editing a collection, writing a book, reviewing all the time for journals, and doing other academic work, I don’t get that much email. Even though I encourage (or beg) students to talk about their semester projects with me, only a few ever take me up on the offer – either in person or by email. I’m not on any listservs.My wife sends me Google chats, not email.  My parents don’t email me. My colleagues don’t email me – except to tell me not to discuss university business on email.

But I do have 1,593 messages in my inbox, a number that would bother most 1,000-0 email users. Because everything digital these days associated with academia is being called “Digital Humanities,” I wondered: is this a Digital Humanities problem? Email seems to be forgotten in Digital Humanities’ narratives, even as it is dominant in 1,000-0 narratives. Given the “big data” impulse of many Digital Humanities scholars, one might wonder why all this big data – 1,593 messages in my case – is not an object of study.

What are some of the important subject  headings of these 1,593 messages?

  • “Re:”
  • “Fw:”
  • “Introduction”
  • “Meeting Agenda”
  • “Meeting Minutes”
  • “Updates”
  • “POT:  18th Floor”

Granted, these are not very exciting subject headings on their own. And granted, this is a small sample size mostly taken from the last few emails in my inbox.  But neither would be much of the material data mined by a typical Digital Humanities scholar running algorithmic searches through a typical online database of images or scanned text be exciting on its own.  Digital Humanities scholars love patterns in material, often more than the material itself. In fact, I’m sure these subject headings could tell a fascinating story if brought together at the point of pattern formation. That story might be “We’re going to have an agenda and minutes for the 18th floor” or “Hey, there are updates of the agenda on the 18th floor.” Fascinating stuff.

For this reason, I am sure, I do not care about having zero emails in my inbox. If I were to eliminate all of my email, what data would I have to mine? How could I make sense of “Re:” in light of the larger email conversation that might also include “POT: 18th Floor”?  Are Digital Humanists missing out on a big data by reducing their inboxes to zero? Are they denying themselves insights into the subject matter of contemporary media based education as it relates to email? MIght we learn what the big story of 21st email inboxes are by examining and studying this big data?

Oh look. A new message. Make that 1,594 now.


  1. Yup, exactly. Even though I achieved Inbox Zero for the first time in my life right before I left for #nhuk, I am an email hoarder when it comes to the directories and subdirectories of saved emails I have.

    When people ask me how Kairos’ editorial workflow is archived, I say (reluctantly), “in my email” because it’s true. I have 10 years of Kairos emails saved on hard drives (from past schools) and current servers. I’ve been trying to collaborate for years with some colleagues in business who study virtual leadership, to see what this (massive-for-me) data set might reveal.

    Granted, it’s not “Re:” and “Fwd:” that many folks have. And apparently I get a ton more emails than you do. (If I go an hour without getting at least 5 emails (not from listservs), I assume my mail server is down. But, then, Kairos produces a helluva lot of email data.

    And what to do about IRB? It’s hairy, to be sure. And so I can’t really use any of the data until I sort out that issue.

    Comment by Cheryl Ball — February 19, 2013 @ 10:46 am

  2. I got to zero today. It’s been about two weeks since I was last there. It felt really good. For me it has no bearing on data mining because there are more choices than just delete or let stay. I have a to do folder (74 items and 8 or 9 subfolders) and a series (I’m thinking around 150) of folders on my computer. I can mine my archive anytime I want. The key for me is moving them out of my working memory (my inbox) and into my long-term memory (my archive). My to do folder then becomes a nagging superego that continues to reassert itself, maybe future memories. I stole the system from David Allen. It works for me, but I don’t have any dogmatic allegiance to it. No need to evangelize. Then again, I do love the little kick of dopamine I get when my inbox goes to 0. Better than a cigarette.

    Comment by Jason Helms — February 22, 2013 @ 10:45 am

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