If hearing a new term three times in one week officially makes it a trend, then “E-mail Bankruptcy” is clearly all the rage among the overworked masses, who are opting out of their overstuffed and time-squandering inboxes.
What exactly is it? One fringe dictionary defines it as “choosing to delete, archive or ignore a very large number of e-mail messages without ever reading them, replying to each with a unique response or otherwise acting individually on them.”
Lawrence Lessig, a law school professor and author of several books about technology copyrights, is credited with coining this term in an August 2006 column for Wired Magazine. After spending 80 hours trying to clear out his backlogged inbox, he said he was left with no other option but surrender.
“Bankruptcy is now my only option,” he wrote in a message sent to all the creditors closing in on him.
Lessig offered a three step plan to throw off one’s e-mail overlords once and for all, from collecting the e-mail address of everyone you haven’t responded to and putting them in the BCC filed of a new e-mail, writing a polite note explaining your predicament and apologizing profusely, and finally asking for anything particularly pressing to be resent to you, promising to give this message special attention.
That workers of the world could in just three easy steps collect all the benefits of bankruptcy–freedom from nagging creditors! A fresh start!–caught on quickly. Shortly thereafter, Andrew Baron, producer of Rocketboom, a news videoblog, declared an e-mail reboot telling people that “if you and I had open business, I’m considering it closed as of this e-mail. Please re-submit if you want to continue working on whatever it was with me.”
A month later, Michael Arrington, publisher at TechCrunch, came back from vacation, deleted months of e-mails and turned off his instant messaging, stating that “The signal/noise ratio on IM peaked, and it is no longer a useful communication method for me.” http://www.crunchnotes.com/?p=289 His commenters praised his bold move.
But others took more of a future-planning approach. Just a couple weeks ago, Sean Bonner, co-founder of the Metroblogging blog network, wrote that he will instead use this technique to address his pipeline of incoming e-mail, autoresponding that he now only checks e-mail once a day.
Yet no matter how overstuffed your inbox, and how much anxiety is caused each time twelve new “urgent” messages are added, much like declaring Chapter 7, workers are urged to err on the cautious side before liquidating their e-mail communications, as backlash is all too likely.
“If I worked at my job for 4 hours a week or didn’t return 95% of my work related e-mail, I would be out of my professional job. I say if they can’t take the hand they were dealt, they shouldn’t have gotten involved. They need to buck-up to their digital responsibility or hire someone to do it for them,” wrote a commentor in response to the e-mail bankruptcy trend on Valleywag, a tech gossip blog.
For digitally overloaded workers who aren’t ready to fold their cards, the Web Worker Daily blog offers some less drastic approaches to inbox management, including simply not responding to any e-mails, without making a big to-do of it.
“The benefit of declaring your bankruptcy is that you feel psychologically free to proceed with deleting the e-mail. But your e-mail responses may not be as important as you think. I doubt people who sent Larry Lessig emails in January 2002 were expecting responses in 2004. Face it: For the most part, people aren’t sitting around waiting for your replies,” wrote editor Anne Zelenka.
The site also suggests delaying e-mailed responses or setting up an auto-reply by suggesting other communication channels, from IM to telephone. If all this comes across as a little drastic, it’s perhaps because it should.
“If you’re contemplating e-mail bankruptcy, you probably need something radical,” wrote Zelenka.