Cleaning Up My Email Inbox

We are drowning in emails
Drowning in Emails!

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

I’ve pretty much lived on the Internet for the past 20 years. As one measure of my life online; I maintain four email accounts that I check daily. I have several more email accounts that I don’t much bother with beyond a weekly check. These are in addition to my iPhone text messages and business Skype messages I deal with, daily. Believe it or not, I sometimes even receive non-spam phone calls.

Last week, I decided I needed to clean up my primary email inbox. I came to this decision when I saw I had over 99,000 unread emails and was using 98 percent of my allotted account space. Cleaning up my inbox became another adventure in online living.

The Early Days

Back in the early days of the Internet, all the way back in 1997, a then new online service called “Yahoo!” started a free web-based email service. I was already using email then, but it was a service provided by either my company or my Internet Service Provider (ISP), with the inbox on my local machine. When Yahoo! started offering email as a webservice I considered it a novelty with limited need. Microsoft had also started offering their web-based email service called “Hotmail,” which quickly gained the reputation for being a great way to share porn images (or so I was told). I was one of the early Yahoo! email users, as demonstrated by actually acquiring the email address “[email protected]

I didn’t use my Yahoo! account much until after hurricane Katrina wiped out the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 2005. Prior to that, all my email was through my local ISP, and I used a free client-based email program called “Eudora.” After hurricane Katrina, when I didn’t have Internet (or even phone service) for several months, I shifted all email traffic to my Yahoo! account and never went back to a personal client-based service.

Even back in the last millennium, email spam was a thing. Most of that early spam was porn – really nasty stuff. Then “free” email-based newsletters magically started popping up, adding to the general deluge of spam. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 helped suppress the already out-of-control porn spam and other email trash. However, I have a bad tendency to “opt-in” to email newsletters, which then seemed to propagate to other non-opted-in newsletters.

Cleaning Up The Mess

Given that I could not read every single email popping up in inbox, the unread emails started accumulating. About two weeks ago I noticed that my unread emails tallied just over 99,000 and I was about out of allowed email space. I decided I really needed to do some virtual spring cleaning.

I first started trying to clean out by sender. Amazon emails were an easy mark and I cleared out several thousand “Amazon Recommends,” “Order has shipped,” “Can you answer this question,” and assorted other helpful emails from Amazon over the past 21 years. I cleared out eBay stuff next, followed by a few other senders I received a lot of stuff from. All of these accounted for about 10,000 items.

Then I got into the heavy lifting of sorting by “Unread.” I mentally struggled a bit, then decided if I hadn’t read a given email sent five years ago, it really wasn’t important. So, I started highlighting and deleting. My Yahoo! inbox was really bogging down at first, and the initial 10,000 emails took a while. I was refreshing my email inbox screen after every few thousand deletes, which helped improve responsiveness.

As part of my cleanup, I decided I needed to attack the source. So, as I identified newsletters and advertisements I made a point to “unsubscribe from this mailing list.” I lost count after unsubscribing from 20 mailing lists. There were a lot more. I discovered that, in spite of the CAN-SPAM act, not every mass mailing had a working “unsubscribe” function. I marked those as spam using Yahoo’s spam function. Then deleted and moved on.

Layers of History

The year 2020 was a very good year – for mass mailing emails. I cleared out over 10,000 unread emails for that year alone. I must have been really bored at some points during the pandemic pause as there were a lot of alleged “opt-in” emails. They mostly became “opt-outs.” The year 2019 wasn’t much better than 2020.

As I worked my way through the unread emails my inbox started to breath easier. Occasionally I discovered – to my chagrin – a real email from a real friend I had never opened. Most likely, the email had never been opened because I never saw it, buried in all the spam and “opt-in” newsletter advertisements. I do have to admit, working down through years of emails past brought back memories of what I was involved in that particular year. Especially the times I was job-hunting, as I found lots of unopened emails from job-search engines at certain times.

By late Saturday, May 1, I finally got down to the “Big O” of unread emails. One unexpected challenge was the number of emails I was receiving while trying to clear out the old stuff. As best as I could determine, I was receiving an average of four spam emails per hour, in addition to the important stuff I actually sometimes wanted to read.

Staying Clean

Having spent nearly a full day cleaning out 99,000 emails, I vowed to stay clean. Given the number of emails I unsubscribed from, I naively thought managing my future emails would be easier. It was not to be. As of today I have 362 unread emails sitting there, using up bytes and generally pissing me off.

I haven’t even tackled my other two personal email accounts, that collectively have another several thousand unread emails. I’ll need to clean those out, someday, before I hit my account limits.

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