May 11, 2008

Web Service Notifications Outnumber Live Bodies In My E-Mail

E-mail used to be about connecting people, regardless of distance. With time, it developed new capabilities - sending attachments of ever greater size, acting as a marketing vehicle, both solicited and otherwise (see: Spam), displaying pictures and HTML, and of course, serving as a repository for status notifications for commerce, news, and social media. Now, there's no question for me that updates from online services greatly outnumber the amount of person to person communication I get each day in my personal e-mail. (Work e-mail, of course, is another story)

For me, e-mail is where I want to be updated for all things finance, be it bank statements, credit card invoices, stock trade transactions, or the electricity and cell phone bills. As I see it, every e-mail note there saves paper, and saves me digging through the mail to sign something off and send a check.

I also, despite getting them at an increasing rate over the last few months, still get notifications by e-mail when somebody chooses to follow me on FriendFeed, LinkRiver, Shyftr or Twitter, for starters. I also get notified if someone befriends me on other services, like Facebook and Digg. At times, especially when a particular topic is driving up conversation, I can hear the sounds of new e-mail hitting my computer every couple minutes, invariably drawing a sarcastic comment from my wife, who helpfully adds, "Well, aren't you popular?"

Twitter and FriendFeed follows come in pretty often these days...

While I could, of course, turn off these notifications, it helps to see if the person following is someone I'll be soon watching in turn, and it also alerts me to if I'm getting name-dropped somewhere. Usually, a quick visit to Summize or Google Blog Search can help with that.

Curious if others using Web services as I do were seeing a similar onslaught of Web notifications taking over their in box, I posted a question to Twitter, which also hit FriendFeed. So far, the response is certainly mixed.

Susan Beebe claimed 85% of her e-mail to be from "real people", but otherwise, the FriendFeed voting came out 16-2 in favor of services, while Twitter replies also came out with services ahead, 6 to 1. Bwana McCall wrote, "I get more Bacn than real email. It's sad.", while Hutch Carpenter said it simply, "Notifications by far."

While many people are fighting with the e-mail data deluge, striving for the proverbial "In Box Zero", handling online notifications is like any other system. You just need some good hierarchy. I've set up a folder called "Blog" in my e-mail for all correspondence related to the blog, from people pitching stories, to working with entrepreneurs and other bloggers. I have subfolders for some of the services where I've had the most updates, and of course, for real-world work, I have a "Commerce" folder, which surprisingly, has all my stock trade notifications from eTrade going back to the year 2000, and every order ever. Thank goodness for e-mail search, something Apple's Mail program does extremely well.

While robots may have taken over the inbound side of my e-mail, I still own the outbound side, and take every effort I can to keep up. But the mix has definitely changed.