Desktop Critic: Attack of the Living E-Mail

How could anyone not love e-mail? It's cheap; it fosters literacy; it provides a written record of what's been said. Best of all, it's delivered almost instantaneously, like a phone call–but you answer it at your leisure, like U.S. mail. Nobody ever had to get up from dinner to answer an e-mail. (Nobody with a life, anyway.)

Unfortunately, e-mail can get out of hand. Take my bloated, overtaxed Claris Emailer box: spam, mailing lists, and tech-support pleas from readers were drowning me, even as my book deadlines were crashing down in flames. One frightening morning I awoke to find that I was exactly 1,749 messages behind.

I did some research: How did other high-e-mail-traffic individuals handle the deluge? Andy Gore, Macworld's editor in chief, reads all messages, forwards lots to appropriate parties, but responds only to the ones he's best qualified to answer. Harry Connick Jr. lets his office handle requests (autographs, tour dates, photos); he answers the others according to "the lottery system." Rush Limbaugh claims to get 12,000 messages a day, which he promptly deletes. (In that case, why publish your e-mail address at all?)

As best as I could tell, those strategies rely primarily on deleting huge swaths of messages. Yet much of my material comes from the suggestions, corrections, and ideas in those e-mails. Furthermore, my hardwired Midwestern sense of duty compels me to answer reader messages as part of the unwritten book buyer-author contract. How could I keep both my e-mail address and my sanity? I decided to apply technology to the problem.

Phase I: Delete Spam

Too many of my incoming e-mails run along the lines of "MAKE MONEY SALTING CRACKERS AT HOME!" or "SEXXXXY TRUCK DRIVERS ARE WAITING FOR YOUR CALL!" If I'd started my Internet life ten years ago by keeping one address just for e-mail, I wouldn't be in this mess. My mistake was posting messages on bulletin boards, where software-scavenger spam robots pick up addresses.

Still, I found a way out in, of all places, Macworld. A sidebar in "Tame Your E-Mail" (June 1998, available at ) leaked the trick to having your e-mail program route spam automatically to the Trash. Bingo!

Phase II: Autofile

I subscribe to a bunch of Internet mailing lists, such as the EvangeList and a PalmPilot discussion group. Using the same filtering trick described in that Macworld article, I taught my e-mail program to autofile mailing-list messages into folders of their own. Only actual personal messages remained in my in-box.

Phase III: FAQs

To siphon the frequently asked questions out of my e-mail, I created a FAQs page at my Web site. No longer did I have to type out answers to "How do I do a clean install?" and "What's a Type 3 error?"; instead, I could refer the authors of such questions to

Phase IV: TypeIt4Me

This brilliant shareware control panel (available at ) lets you set up auto-expanding abbreviations that work in any program. I type ty and get "thank you." I type csi and get "A clean system-folder install will solve your problem." I type gbye and get "In this age of impersonal, faceless communication, isn't it wonderful that we can take a quiet moment to exchange personal messages?"

Phase V: Denial of Service

Most of my tech-support messages come from readers of my books; in this world of $35 calls to Apple, I can understand their plight. Where's a person supposed to turn for help these days?

Unfortunately, more and more of these messages begin: "I heard in a chat room that you give free tech support. So here's the problem with my ImageWriter . . . "

After much soul-searching, I decided to play hardball. I created a macro that offers ten free sources of help, such as Apple's Tech Info Library and This macro explains that I just can't answer personal questions from everyone on the planet–and still have time to write stuff that could help larger groups of people.

My assault on Mount E-Mail, I'm happy to say, has cut the tidal wave down to a mere waterfall. Nowadays, my software tricks let me spend only two hours a day answering mail.

Meanwhile, I'm still on the quest for shortcuts. If you've got any great ideas, my e-mail address is david@–;actually, never mind.

May 1999 page: 178

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