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Messages Per Day
2008: 210 billion
2009: 247 billion
2010: 294 billion
2011: 349 billion
2012: 419 billion
SOURCE: The Radicati Group, a technology market research firm.
E-mail is at risk of killing its own usefulness. Daily e-mail volume is now at 210 billion a day worldwide and increasing, according to The Radicati Group, a market research firm.
The burden of managing all that e-mail has prompted a backlash. One extreme reaction is "e-mail bankruptcy," where users throw up their hands and erase their entire inboxes. Many admit the distraction makes it near impossible to get work done, or even socialize normally.
Kelly Kirk, who works for a trade group in downtown Washington, D.C., says checking e-mail comes between her work and her personal life.
"I'm constantly ducking my head under tables during events to check my e-mail. I hid behind a tree once when my boyfriend said I wasn't allowed to check my BlackBerry," Kirk says. To get "real work" done, she says she now turns off the computer and her BlackBerry.
Companies are coming up with both behavioral and technical answers to the e-mail overload issue. Some major companies, like Intel, discourage the use of the "reply all" feature, which generates lots of extra mail. Other companies try to enforce "e-mail-free Fridays."
At Microsoft, people are turning to instant messaging — or the good old phone — according to Joel Cherkis, a manager working in the company's Reston, Va., offices. His e-mail program includes a feature that allows him to see whether co-workers are online. Color-coded dots signal availability: red for busy and green for online.
The phone or instant message cuts out lots of extra time exchanging messages, Cherkis says. That shift in behavior also trimmed e-mail traffic by about 20 percent, he estimates.
At the same time, companies are seeking ways to make the technology itself better at filtering what matters from what doesn't.
Yahoo, one of the biggest providers of Web-based mail, is trying to rethink its e-mail as a social network, according to John Kremer, vice president of Yahoo Mail. The idea is that since most of us e-mail only a handful of people regularly, e-mail systems should display those messages at the top of the inbox.
A startup called Xobni recently launched free software, which is based on a similar idea. The group's program works with Microsoft Outlook; every time you e-mail, it pulls up a profile of the person you're e-mailing, their contact information and previous e-mail conversations you had with that person.
"The problem we're trying to solve is the fact that people can't deal with all the information in their inboxes," said Xobni Vice President Gabor Cselle. "It might be very hard to remember what folder you stored that e-mail in or who sent you that message."
And, Cselle says, if e-mail doesn't provide its users a solution, it risks becoming less useful to those who rely on it.