Consolidating Email Updates

By 11:00a this morning there were already over a dozen examples of what email professionals call bacn (pronounced like bacon) in my inbox. Bacn is the euphemistic term for subscribed email, automated mailings that a user has opted into, as opposed to the more commonly known spam, which is generally, but not always, unsolicited email. It’s not as valued as personal email written by real humans, but it’s better than junk mail.

Bacn includes newsletters, alerts, daily deals and assorted marketing messages from companies that I’ve transacted with in some form before. Most of these messages I ignore and some I will peruse occasionally, but the bacn that I pay the most attention to is the kind that updates me on activity from my social networks; notifications automatically generated when someone has liked or favorited one of my posts, when someone has tagged me in a photo or mentioned me in a tweet, when someone has added me to a group or list, etc.

Basically, the stuff that’s about me specifically is what interests me. But even then, the volume of these emails is too much to handle. I’ve already turned off bacn-generating settings in Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare and others — and those are the networks that I actually use.

Bringing Home the Bacn

There’s got to be a better way to do this. What I’d like to have is some kind of third-party service that can aggregate all of these updates into one place and send me a single email digest. But I need more than aggregation; what I want is to be able to indicate to this service which update sources and which kinds of activities on those sources matter most to me, and have those preferences reflected in the digest so that the most relevant and interesting stuff shows up at the top and the less imperative stuff floats to the bottom.

Back in May I wrote about a similar problem when I blogged about the proliferation of bookmarklets that many sites depend on to draw content into their networks. As we get deeper and deeper into social software, it strikes me that more and more of this stuff is going to start looking highly duplicative, and it will make less and less sense that each network should have to reinvent the wheel. To me, it seems illogical that I should be regularly bombarded with an email update from each one of the social networks I participate in when the technology that would be required to consolidate them into something much more digestible, much more user-friendly and much more effective is readily available. We can fix this.

  1. My initial thought would be to sign up with a secondary email address (either a separate account or a username+bacn@gmail style account) and forward all the notifications on to some third party that parses and aggregates as desired, but that doesn’t work because you really want your “canonical” email address associated with these accounts for a variety of reasons.

    Using gmail, you could either create filters to handle the same flow, though a lot of users would have trouble with that hoop, or you could use the Google OAuth API (a la tripit) to automatically pull that stuff out,however you’d still need to filter it if you don’t want to see it…

    And any attempt to get services to standardize on some kind of notifications API separately is going to take 10 years… so yeah, not sure how to solve the problem.

  2. I disagree. I personally have also killed all newsletters and social network notification emails. Browsers and mobile apps are quickly standardizing notifications and badges to solve this problem, which is definitely not going to take 10 years (link)

    Gmail filters are a huge cop out and don’t deal with the real problem (except for this one that finds the word ‘unsubscribe’ and similar phrases). Email is statistically being used less and less (link), and most of us get our news from Facebook, Twitter or RSS. The downside is that we have to log in to each network to see our updates, but this is minor and most of us don’t log out that often.

    If we can make it a standard to have to opt-in to the email notifications, that would be a great step in the right direction. Defaulting to flooding someone’s inbox is a terrible choice. With Facebook alone, there are over 70 checkboxes for choosing notifications and that doesn’t even count mobile. That’s one extreme side of the spectrum.

    To your point, Khoi, I love apps like Bird Bell (a Twitter-specific notification center for Mac) and iOS’s Notification Center itself, because they’re able to be picked and chosen in a fairly detailed, but not overwhelming way, and are in one place to be viewed with a single gesture whenever we feel like checking them.

    I think browsers have a little catching up to do, but in general I think that people are becoming more aware of their time, particularly with email, and that systems like Notification Center are a great direction to be headed in.

  3. I use Other Inbox with my Google Apps mail. It identifies (and learns) which mail is service email instead of people email, and skips the inbox and adds a category label. It can also send a digest to your inbox periodically to let you know what it’s filed. It isn’t perfect, but it’s completely saved my inbox, especially when I’m checking mail from mobile devices and I don’t want to deal with archiving all that extra mail.

  4. Kevin: In spite of the popular sentiment that “email is dying,” I still feel like it’s the most consistently reliable medium for businesses to communicate with their customers, bar none, and it will likely continue to be that way. I don’t really think an efficient email channel can be replaced by advances in browser technology, at least not anytime soon. Email is here to stay, in my opinion.

    Wilson: I think the problem I’m describing is different from managing my inbox. I actually am not someone who has a hard time with my email; I think I stay on top of it pretty well, and often am more effective with it than other folks I know who probably get less email and nevertheless still use alternate email methods like Other Inbox. What I’m talking about is I’d like to be able to digest certain emails — the ones that come from my favorite social networks — in a more consolidated form.

  5. Khoi-

    I definitely think the pain points you’re describing are ones that could be solved in an elegant, helpful way. Even if individual social networks would tackle this design task it would make a big difference. Twitter sending once-a-day or once-a-week digests of a user’s activity, ordered in a way that thoughtfully reflects the people and topics they interact with most would be way more useful than the current one-email-per-action setup.

    The disconnect is that most networks and services use email as a way to notify us of activity instantly, based on the assumption that (1) our inbox is the most likely place to find us throughout the day and that (2) we’ll want to interrupt what we’re doing to respond quickly to any new update.

    I agree with Kevin that Apple’s approach with iOS 5’s notification center is the right solution to the problem of pushing instant updates in a less-obtrusive, but still readily available way. A complementary tool would be the sort of digest that you describe – an email that consolidates a volume of pings into a more insightful whole… similar to what does in its weekly emails to users.

    In terms of who helps with this most from an email inbox perspective currently, I’d second Wilson’s OtherInbox recommendation. They don’t solve the insight/ranking problem, but they do provide daily digests which effectively become a table of contents for your social and service updates from the day before, allowing you to quickly skim the results for items of interest.

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