Why do we care so deeply about the inbox?

You encounter plenty of unsolicited communication in your life. Unexpected outreach takes many different forms and a combination of manual and automated defense mechanisms protect us from having to engage when we don’t want to. Think about these different modes of contact:

  • In public, in person. If you’ve ever walked down the strip in Las Vegas, you’ve run into dozens of people passing out paper flyers. Or at the entrance to a shopping mall, a teenager with a clipboard trying to conduct market research. Or in the concourse of an airport, kiosk dwellers selling airline credit cards. Most people avoid eye contact and simply walk on by, while others give a terse “no thanks” and walk on.
  • In private, in person. It’s a bit different when someone comes to your own house or apartment, asking for a donation for the high school sports team, for you to sign a political petition, buy a magazine subscription, or some combination of the three. A lot of people will look through the peephole or a window and not even answer the door.
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  • Via mail. Direct mail generates over $4 billion in annual revenue for the US Postal Service. A while back, I ran an advisory session for the USPS and showed a picture with the term “junk mail” on a sign. An executive told me very sternly, “there is no such thing as that term.” For the rest of us, the DMA maintains an opt-out list and we recycle anything else that shows up unwanted. Some people even pay for services where all mail is sent to a processing location, sorted, and only useful pieces (e.g. personal correspondence, bills) are sent to the client’s home.
  • Via phone. Since passage of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, telemarketing has been dying, accelerated by creation of the National Do Not Call Registry. Even without those protections, most of us will look first at an incoming call’s ID before making a decision on whether to answer or letting it ring through to voicemail.

In all of the channels above, consumers firmly exercise the option to bypass engagement. Email is different.

When a message lands in your inbox, it’s gotten past some form of spam filter, thus carrying some level of trust. Commercial email may be easy to ignore, similar to physical junk mail, but for some reason it carries a higher level of annoyance.

  • Most blatant spam gets quarantined before you ever see it, but all of us get a message now and then about an “unclaimed inheritance” or request to act as a banking intermediary.
  • When you discover you’ve been added to a newsletter mailing list from someone you exchanged business cards with, it feels like a small violation of trust.
  • Even when we’ve opted in to receive messages, some companies abuse the permission and send emails too frequently.

I’m going to write about email more than once this week and thought I’d start here. Unlike other communication channels, why do we seem to care so deeply about the content in our inbox?