STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's a reminder that email can be hazardous, and anybody who doubts it should listen to Will Schwalbe, author of a book about email etiquette. Mr. Schwalbe tells us about the auto-fill feature. You know, you start to type in somebody's name and the computer guesses where you're heading and puts in the rest of the name for you, or rather the rest of a name for you. It was no help to the company Eli Lilly during a legal case.
Mr. WILL SCHWALBE (Author): Their outside counsel meant to send an email to another attorney working on it named Berinsen(ph), and auto-fill accidentally provided someone else called Berinsen, who happened to be a reporter for the New York Times. And a one-billion-dollar matter that Lilly and their counsel were trying to keep relatively under wraps was handed to the New York Times as one of their great scoops of the year.
INSKEEP: We're going to hear more from Schwalbe later. Stories like that inspire us to spend this week talking about email and the way it's changed our lives. And we begin with NPR's Yuki Noguchi, who reports that in a world in which 210 billion emails are sent every day, even the most savvy people can lose control of their inboxes.
YUKI NOGUCHI: You'd think because Joel Cherkis works for Microsoft, he'd have a handle on his email.
Mr. JOEL CHERKIS (Microsoft): In my inbox right now - I kind of laugh when I say this - I've got 2,983 messages, but I think probably one of the things a lot of people get a kick out of is the number of messages I have unread within my email system, which right now is 31,944 messages.
NOGUCHI: This, despite his system of filtering email by color and archiving them into 450 folders. Here's how he describes dealing with the onslaught.
Mr. CHERKIS: Email messages that come from my boss or my peers appear as red in my inbox. Email messages that come directly to me - so, if I'm on the To: line - are green. And then email messages where I typically am copied or on the CC: line will come through as blue.
NOGUCHI: The Radicati Group is a research firm. It studies email and says the volume of it will double in four years. But what you're looking at is just the tip of the inbox. Chances are your spam filter is catching a huge number of emails - something like 80 percent.
Cherkis says once in a while the overload drives him to extremes.
Mr. CHERKIS: I have this statement that I'll make sometimes where I say I declare email bankruptcy. I consider Chapter 11 on email, and I've done it twice since I've actually been at Microsoft. I hate to admit this, but I'll delete my entire inbox.
NOGUCHI: This doesn't always go over too well with his colleagues. Some send angry notes saying, why aren't you responding? And the answer is, the only alternative is to respond all the time. Here's John Kramer, vice president for Yahoo! Mail.
Mr. JOHN KRAMER (Vice President, Yahoo! Mail): I think we've all felt that feeling when you come back and the joy of a week away from the office is lost within the first five minutes of looking at the emails that you have to comb through.
NOGUCHI: Basically, taking vacation from email is near impossible. So, a number of businesses are trying to set some ground rules, like discouraging Reply All messages or declaring Email Free Fridays. But habits aren't easy to change, so some technology firms are thinking about how to make email work again. Most companies say there are two basic problems.
One: email doesn't filter - so a message you really need to read gets sandwiched between those you might never read. Second: it doesn't organize itself. So, some companies are starting to rethink email as a kind of social network. After all, most of us only respond to a handful of people like family, friends and some colleagues.
Those people make up our core social network. Here's Gabor Cselle.
Mr. GABOR CSELLE (Vice President, Xobni): What we're trying to do is figure out how people think about email and the answer to that is that people think about emails in terms of people.
NOGUCHI: Cselle is vice president of a startup called Xobni, or Inbox spelled backwards. Its program works by setting up a window displaying the profile of the person you're emailing as well as their schedule, phone number and previous emails. It launched last month and has already been downloaded more than 300,000 times.
But what about that Reply All feature, which generates a lot of mass email? Joel Cherkis said he relies on instant messaging to help him cut through the email clutter.
Mr. CHERKIS: What I found is, that these email conversations that go back and forth and back and forth over a couple of days can be responded to much faster in using instant messaging or voice mail.
NOGUCHI: And that has cut down on Microsoft's email problem. But technology alone won't solve problems, says Linda Stone. Stone is a consultant who worked for Apple and Microsoft and believes the biggest problem with email is behavioral.
Ms. LINDA STONE (Consultant): Is email bad? No. Is email good? No. It's how we use it; that's what determines whether it works for us or not. It's really up to us. It's how we use it; it's what we do with it.
NOGUCHI: And now, if you excuse me, I need to go check my email.
Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.