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May 28 2007   1:43PM GMT

Email bankruptcy: Fighting words

Margaret Rouse Margaret Rouse Profile: Margaret Rouse

 Mike Musgrove set off a blogswarm last week with an article called “E-Mail Reply to All: ‘Leave Me Alone’.”  

 The buzz is about email bankruptcy.  What is email bankruptcy? Mike Musgrove defines it as “swearing off e-mail entirely or, more commonly, deleting all old messages and starting fresh.” 

MIT Professor Sherry Turkle has been credited with inventing the term.  She talked about declaring email bankruptcy in this 2002 interview with NY Times columnist Costance Rosenblum. She also called it a “fantasy.”

But then along came venture capitalist Fred Wilson — who went ahead and actually did it.  Yay Fred!

Fred Wilson is the managing partner of two venture capital firms, Flatiron Partners and Union Square Ventures. (Hint: You’ve heard of Feedburner? How about del.icio.us?)

Pretty clever that a VC would title his blog post “Declaring bankruptcy.”  

“I am so far behind on email that I am declaring bankruptcy.
If you’ve sent me an email (and you aren’t my wife, partner, or colleague), you might want to send it again.
I am starting over.”

Pretty clever of Mike Musgrove to get the grandfather of the Internet, David Farber, to go on record saying that poor Fred should get out of the technology field.

“For a venture capitalist to say something like this — he should get out of the technology field.”


For the record, I’m in favor of the concept behind email bankruptcy.  Also for the record, I don’t think their quarrel has anything to do with email.

The real argument is about words and organizational style. 

There are some folks who live to color code. They have Outlook rules and folders within folders. They like structure and order and will do everything they can to control the contents of their inbox.

Then there are folks who like the junk drawer approach. They never sort their mail.  They like to see what’s coming in and they want it all in one place. To these folks, inboxes — like all junk drawers — need to be cleaned out periodically.

Both organizational styles are valid.  It’s sort of like left-brain / right-brain thinking.  Remember the ant and grasshopper? One isn’t better than the other, they’re just different.  Same with communication technology. Telephone, snail mail, IM, email…they all have their uses.  So it’s not the technology we’re really talking about, it’s what’s socially acceptable for how a person choses to manage the technology.

Some people think email = priority.  In their minds, every incoming message has an exclamation point. They will eagerly drop whatever they’re working on to offer a quick reply. Other people prioritize thier time differently. They see email as a daily chore.  Ok. I get that part. Different strokes for different folks.

So what’s all the fuss?

The word “bankruptcy.” 

Dr. Turkle used the word bankruptcy to describe “starting over.” Unfortunately the word also means “utter ruin and failure.”  It implies the person is incompetent and a loser. Pretty harsh condemnation for just having a different organizational style.

So let’s change the words.  Do-over is so much friendlier.

Our readers are good at inventing new words. What should we call it when you delete all your old email messages and start fresh? 

4  Comments on this Post

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  • bill link
    I was wondering if you were going to write about this. Unfortunately, you missed the point. For some of us, answering e-mail has become a full time job but that doesn't mean I agree with what Fred Wilson did. There has to be a better way to deal with too much mail besides deleting it.
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  • mrouse
    Bill, You're not the only one who thought I missed the point. Marc Orchant pretty much wiped the floor with me on this one. If you haven't discovered Marc Orchant before, he's a time management, productivity and Outlook wizard. He's got a great book out on Outlook and he's got a new blog called Platform Agnostic.  The links there can get you to the rest of his stuff. He's a very busy and productive man. Marc is also an eloquent writer and he's got me thinking. Could I be wrong that periodically archiving your email and starting over is a legitimate solution for some people who are overwhelmed by inbox chaos? Maybe. Perhaps. Nahhhhhhh. I would like to get a peek at his sock drawer though.   : - )    
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  • Marc Orchant
    Margaret, We'll have to get to know one another a bit better before I let you see my sock drawer ;^) Thanks for the very kind words, especially after I "wiped the floor with you". I apologized for my vehemence on my blog but felt like I should do the same here as well. My intentions were good but I could/should have taken a lighter tone and a little brevity wouldn't have hurt either. You have an admirable sense of humor and I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate that in these days of uncontrolled flame wars. Best, Marc
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  • mrouse
    Marc, LOL! When I grow up I want to be just like you. Organized. :0) Ken Magill had a totally different take on the subject.
    "Here’s a novel concept: Most people who become overwhelmed by their inboxes are probably thinking they need to reply to messages that don’t necessarily require it...Announcing e-mail bankruptcy is just another way for some people to try and demonstrate to others how cool they are. “Oh, I just have so much e-mail from people dying to hear from me, I just can possibly keep up with it all. I guess I’ll have to compose a message declaring e-mail bankruptcy: ‘Dear adoring minions…’” I’ll make a pact with everyone on this list right now: You don’t ever send me an e-mail bankruptcy message and I won’t send you a message every Monday about how I vowed this weekend to stop drinking and get on the elliptical trainer more often. Deal?"
    Declaring email bankruptcy to demonstrate how cool you are? Ehhhhhhhh.....I don't think so.
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