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Ever-increasing Work Email Spam

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I’ve lamented about worrying levels of work email before. In academia, email is not only used as a means to get hold of someone, it’s also used to share draft versions of papers, slides of lessons, zipfiles of possible solutions of lab exercises, confusing revisions of contracts and project proposals in even more confusing data formats, and so forth. In short, it’s a mess.

In practice, that’s even half of the story. The other part is even shadier and can be safely categorized as spam. Let’s see here, on a very worrying basis, I receive at least one mail of all of the following:

  • Faculty specific news that is useless to me since our campus follows other rules;
  • Department specific news that is useless to me since I’m on a remote campus;
  • Campus-wide news;
  • University #1-wide news—very relevant speeches of our rector;
  • University #2-wide news—I teach at two universities since it’s a shared curriculum;
  • Urgent paper deadlines from fake academic journals;
  • Communication to students forwarded to all involved teachers “just in case”.

I’m officially a guest teacher at a second university on the same physical campus, gaining yet another work e-mail address. Yay me! Double the universities, double the e-mail trashfun.

This obviously excludes regular meeting requests for PhD seminars and defences that have a high probability of taking place 50 kilometers from where I work—and even more imaginary kilometers from my interests. You’d think a big institution with campuses scattered throughout Belgium would have other, better ways to communicate these announcements. Nope.

I tried a few different things to reduce the daily clutter in my inbox. First, the obvious: divide and conquer into subfolders. That didn’t work, it merely scatters junk everywhere. Second, inbox filtering techniques. Mac’s Mail application has built-in filters that work adequately for one university but barely manages to catch anything for the other. Third, try to notice the sender that I’m not interested. Since most of the mail is bulk and an unsubscribe button of course is absent, that didn’t work either.

At one point, one of the mails effectively had an unsubscribe “feature” I was more than eager to click on. An hour later, I was reprimanded by the administrative staff—my action promptly caused the whole faculty to be unsubscribed. There’s only one email address subscribed and that’s a group. Whoops.

In the end, I resorted to heavyweight lifting tools like SpamSieve to do the dirty work. It’s intelligent enough to learn what I consider spam and what’s not—although a false positive/negative now and then does occur. Below are some statistics after a few months of usage.

SpamSieve statistics on my work mail account.

Almost 30% of incoming messages are junk. I have friends working in big technology companies who have to deal with bigger quantities (issue tracking updates, time tracking reminders, …). However, they do not live in their mailbox: if they want to discuss things, they get up from their desk and simply do so. In cases like remote distribution, I do recognize the advantages of email. Collaborations with academics outside Belgium naturally make you reach for such a system. I love receiving feedback on my work and personal messages on how things are. I’ve enjoyed lengthy conversations this way, both via my work and private email accounts. Even blood pressure rising subjects such as do this before the xth! are passable.

It’s not that I’m not invested in the well-being of my employer and the regular news that comes with it. It’s that it shouldn’t be delivered through email. RSS is perfect for this, for example.

We seem to forget that emails should be fleeting messages you deal with once—nothing more. We should be using repositories to store revisions of documents, not email. We should be using dedicated business communication platforms for announcements, not email. And we should be adding a proper, personalized opt-out option.

So Yeah. Empties spam and trash folders yet again.

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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