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E-mail overload drives many users bananas

June 18, 1998
Web posted at: 3:20 PM EDT

by Paul McNamara

(IDG) -- Try to imagine your e-mail in-box accumulating 300 to 600 messages - not while you are away on vacation, but every day.

This nightmare scenario is already a reality for beleaguered power users, experts say, and could become the norm for many more end users as person-to-person e-mail, subscriber lists and spam continue to proliferate.

"Anytime you see a small group [of users] experiencing a phenomenon, you immediately ask whether they are leaders or just strange," said Dave Crocker, a principal with Brandenburg Consulting in Sunnyvale, Calif. In this case the mega-mail recipients are clearly leaders whose experiences portend a challenge for other end users, as well as for e-mail administrators, Crocker added.

Crocker's assessment may represent the extreme. However, recipients who get 100 to 200 messages per day are already common and no one believes overall e-mail usage is near peaking. By the year 2000, according to an Electronic Messaging Association research project, the number of e-mail users will have grown by 33%, and total messages will be up almost 75%.

"It certainly puts a lot of pressure on network administrators and messaging systems administrators," said Stephen Layne, vice president of messaging at Lotus Development Corp. "You really have to establish acceptable use policies within your organization; otherwise you're going to wind up getting yourself in trouble."

Aside from message storage and bandwidth consumption concerns, there is the more basic matter of individual employees being buried under more e-mail than they can possibly read. Crocker has discussed the issue with fellow power users (he gets 300-plus a day) and other experts.

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"They seem to believe that the maximum they can possibly process in a day is about 200 of those [messages]," Crocker said. "And, I would predict that on a day like that you don't get anything else done."

Layne said he receives about 200 e-mail messages daily. He has written a filtering macro that feeds them in to a Lotus Notes database that allows him to mine for the important stuff using full-text searches. However, that approach by no means allows him to read every message.

"As a heavy e-mail user, you have to be pretty quick and pretty liberal with the delete key," Layne said.

While spam rightfully gets much of the blame for in-box glut, the increasingly popular e-mail subscriber lists from media outlets, professional organizations and vendors are causing much of the overload. "I get more e-mail list server traffic than junk mail," said Tom Connors, a senior member of the technical staff at Texas Instruments, Inc. in Attleboro, Mass. "Most of my problem is my own making."

In addition, inconsiderate e-mailer users - such as the glory hounds who Cc: everyone every time they issue a memo - contribute greatly to the overload. "Who sends a paper memo and copies 300 people?" asked Gary Rowe, a consultant with Rapport Communications. "People do that with e-mail."

The filtering and sorting capabilities of e-mail clients such as Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook, Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes and Eudora Pro from Qualcomm, Inc. have matured considerably in recent releases. Outlook, for example, allows e-mail to be color-coded by sender; say red for the boss, blue for key customers and green for friends.

Usage policies are a vital tool for keeping e-mail volumes under control, experts say, but they are not a panacea.

"We do limit student e-mail storage to 10M bytes, [which] forces [the students] to keep their mailboxes under control," said Greg Scott, IS manager for the College of Business at Oregon State University. "Student chain letters are a problem. We have policies that prohibit them, but the students still send them."

Mass circulation of video clips and joke lists also contribute to the e-mail clutter, according to Alky Poulias, a LAN administrator at xpedx, a division of International Paper Co. in Covington, Ky. Rather than try to ban the practice, Poulias tried a different approach.

"Instead of being heavy handed and forcing it 'underground,' I set up a Notes document database the users can access that serves as a repository for the files," said Poulias. "So instead of that 15M-byte AVI of the Taco Bell Dog wasting space in 20-plus user mail files . . . it's now virus-checked and contained in one specific place."

Despite the e-mail glut problems, there is optimism among e-mail experts that new solutions - both technological and behavioral - will keep pace with higher e-mail volumes.

"There's going to be a point where culture and common sense are going to start to take over," Rowe said, "because there's only so much of this we can process."

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