No, not an email inbox

Even the people who develop email software like Microsoft, Google and IBM know that the inbox sucks. We don’t need a new email inbox we need something completely new. The problem is that Social Software seems to headed into the same problems as email and we certainly don’t need another dump zone.

Pretty streams vs. nasty rapids

Lots of us nerds are enamored with the concept of streams. Streams feed us relevant activity, like RSS or Twitter’s human updates. Simply, streams flow activity to us. There are an increasing amount of clients to help us manage this, Twitter, Alerthingy, Particls, and the soon-to-be Workstreamr. Streams work great when it’s a narrow channel without rocks. Instant messaging is the fastest, friction-free stream. It’s just two people talking in real time. As you broaden your connections, asynchronously and synchronously, to more people and sources, your stream can move much faster. I can’t keep up with Twitter, for example.

Crap in the filter

The social web is noisy and even within your network, your streams can easily turn muddy and/or run right past you. Even when the noise is turned down, the amount of quality, actionable content can be worse than your flooded email inbox. It’s hard to keep up with it all.

Streams turn killer in the enterprise

Now imagine opening the flood gates inside an enterprise filled with 80,000 employees. The amount of updates, alerts and activity can be deafening. Granted, you don’t need to be connected to all 80,000 people at once but there’s still enough scattered demand to crush you under its weight.

The new inbox needs to be a goldpan

It should not only cut the rapids back to a quality stream but help me channel my attention so it’s applied where it counts. It understands and shares which people and topics I’m most connected to. It pools conversations of interest and conversations that need action. Perhaps it even routes streams where I’m blocking. Ultimately, my new inbox needs to turn the perfect storm into a bubbling brook.

  • Gia Lyons

    I want a system that notices things like, “Hey, you’ve emailed/IMed/VoIP’ed/blogged/wiki’d/forumed about Topic X 5 times in the last 4 business days.” Then it sends me a digest, using the direct stream I like best, saying, “Here’s a finely filtered list of people and content you might find valuable.”

    That’s what I want.

  • paisano

    Great minds think alike! Heh heh. Just kidding. I think we both had the power of the inbox on our minds this weekend. Why not? I think it’s ripe for a major overhaul! Forget that inbox zero crapola! We need to turn it into inbox unlimited!! We need to make our inbox/address book work together in the cloud and not stuck in some local computer or even corporate network behind a firewall. Plaxo, despite warts and all, had it right. Centralize and sync “OUR” data in the cloud from many sources. It’s insane to have multiple address books and inboxes! Gmail, yahoo, hotmail, work email, personal AT&T email, etc.! Argh!!!! is another innovative service provider that Gets it. Email aggregation = no more inbox aggrevation!
    I love what these new companies are doing like Xobni and xoopit. Be bold enough to tackle our tradition methods of dealing with email. Many of us are ready for the change! It’s long over due!
    Also, I think tying all this change to our corporate social network like ClearSpace and SharePoint makes perfect sense as well! Sure, LinkedIn too if you want.

    Great stuff, Sam!


  • oliver marks

    Email is a nightmare in big corporations – I used to get bombarded by lotus notes at all hours of day and night, and as we all know it’s like walking up an escalator that’s going down dealing with it.

    In a way it’s like TV – you sit there passively while it dominates your time. I pretty much gave up TV two years ago but I’m still trapped by email.

    I just shredded a ton of junk mail this weekend – the paper sort that spews through my letterbox every day. I think the less tech savvy or interested among us still think very strongly in terms of ‘super fast snail mail’ when they think of email, and of course it doesn’t scale.

    Context is all: email is as crude as the post office’s shipping mechanism.
    Aggregation gives you a bigger bucket to sort through,doesn’t solve the volume problem.

    I think the differentiator is context. I like Lunarr’s concept of the ‘back’ of a webpage for communication but it would be even cooler if you saw the results right there and not in your email.

    The problem is that email is such crude technology, even tagging could help to sort it. For the enterprise I’m a big fan of transparency and contextual project based communication within the ‘dashboard’ of the collaboration in well organized wiki style spaces.

    Great thought provoking post!

  • Luis Suarez

    Wooohoooo! Another thought-provoking blog post, Sam! One that as I read through, including Stowe’s reply in his own blog, couldn’t help me but smiling a bit here and there. For someone like myself, who about three months ago declared an open, public fight against work related e-mail (You can read more about it over here), it does ring a bell as the next step in how people will collaborate and share knowledge, whether social media is going to help in that or not would probably not matter much. The change is still going to happen. Regardless.

    Yes, I can understand how most folks out there would say that this is going to generate much more content than ever before and it would all be difficult to digest, but I tend to disagree with it. In my three months of having given up on work related e-mail, I have got now tons more free time to share and collaborate more than ever before, and still do less hours than what I was doing before. The benefits are there, and are very clear, what I would hope, once and for all, is for people to understand how content, and that generation of content, is no longer key, as it used to be, and the main reason being the moment you hit on the publish button the content is out of date already!

    What really matters now is what should have been the primary focus in the first place all along: the people and what they have in their heads that has not been codified anywhere else just yet. Like I said, next generation of social media tools would probably need to provoke that shift from content away to the people and help them focus more on nurturing and maintaining those working relationships in a healthy status rather than having to work on producing that content which will then be distributed through whatever the means.

    Somehow I do not see the inbox being that option. On the contrary. Do I see social software instead? Well, it would depend on whether they could provoke the shift from content to people, something that hasn’t happened just yet, although I am sure it would at some point in time (And would hope to see it before I retire)

  • Paula Thornton

    Love the imagery too! We need filters that don’t just line things up in rows (categories), but that allow us to say ‘no’ and it understands (or learns) the context to filter out stuff that’s not relevant for us (the term personalization is not relevant until it achieves this level of function).

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  • Rachel Happe

    Hi Sam – Great post. Here is what I want to see evolve.

    The streams of information will be filtered by the things I am most interested in (whereby the applications would ‘learn’ that based on my conversations) and from the people I find most important (my individual influencers).

    There should be ptions for different people to apply different filters. Some people want just the facts, some people still want to read everything, some people care most about what their peers are saying, some people are highly visual, etc. So provide UIs that combine and filter the streams of information in different ways and formats.

    Most content (particularly enterprise content) will be enriched with social data in a couple of years (tags, rating, favorites, comments, etc.) so social filtering will become the norm and social ‘destinations’ we be less critical.

    Given individuals presence-enabled management (Grand Central and Fuse are examples but only for one channel each) for all of my information and communication channels. When I change my presence from ‘available’ to ‘In a meeting’ every stream gets diverted differently. People contacting me automatically get a message (different by sender), FYI information channels get junked or diverted, etc so when I get back to my communications/information hub the immediately seen things are only those in which I am a critical link in the workflow.

    Basically users need more controls and filters – many of them (but not all) helped by automation.


  • Marshall Clark

    Wow – you’re better than coffee, Sam.

    What kind of amazing filtery goodness can we distill out of communications + Social Graph Prioritization? It all needs to be read, but who/what should we read first?

    Filtering based on Social Graph association?

    Financial integration: Weighting by sender importance – top billable clients = priority feed?

    Calendar integration: Weighting by deadline – emailed notes for today’s meeting float to the top?

    Lots of fun possibilities

  • James Hipkin

    Love the post and some great ideas in the comments.

    I don’t think filters are the key. We can do that now and all it does is organize data. Filters won’t convert the data to information. But, in the wacky idea department, there might be a way.

    I think there is something in cloud technology and Search. We need a way to visually present the content in terms that interest the individual. Clouds do this well. An intelligent algorithm, similar to how Google etc determine which content is relevant to specific keywords, would lean what interests us based on what content we send time on, how long we spend on it, and how interactive we are with the content. Then as content streams in it would display on our desktop as a cloud allowing us to select the content area we want to explore next.

    This may already exist. If it does I would like to know where. If it doesn’t perhaps it should.

  • Lawrence Liu

    Yes, this already exists, and I’m using it. No, it’s not SharePoint, but it is Microsoft IP. That’s all I’ll say for now. :-)

    Props to Sam for being so creatively visual in conveying this recently hyped up meme.

    Lawrence Liu
    Senior Technical Product Manager for Microsoft SharePoint

  • Lawrence Liu

    Ah, one more thing – it’s great to see more and more people realize that much of this “social stuff” just ends up being an unproductive distraction or increased information overload if the tools/capabilities aren’t SEAMLESSLY INTEGRATED to provide the end user with CONTEXTUAL AWARENESS. More on those 4 keywords when I have some free time to put together a nice shiny blog entry like Sam’s.

    Lawrence Liu

  • Ed Brill

    Hey Sam, great thought. Wish I had had a chance to reply sooner today.

    In our presentations on Notes 8, we have a slide early in the deck that is titled, “The inbox is a catalyst for productivity”.

    I am not sure a separate thing is the answer — I tried that with an RSS reader, and ended up feeling like it was “two inboxes”. And it’s not like I can give up e-mail — I have customers and “customers” (my internal customers) who need to be able to get responses from me, and it’s not up to me to dictate the tools or forum for such an answer.

    We clearly need better tools for this, but it should be called something other than an “inbox”.

  • Lawrence Liu

    Ed, no, it SHOULD be called an “inbox” even though that inbox may be DIFFERENT for different people. :-) For most people in the workplace, that inbox is Outlook (sorry, but true). I can get RSS feeds (like external FriendFeeds and internal status updates) just fine into Outlook and search/filter/flag/tag any of it along with my e-mails. Of course, I would love to have the flow of the info coming into my Outlook be more optimized/prioritized as described by Sam. And people, who prefer to use generic feed readers or GMail or something else as their inboxes, have the same wants and needs. The key is interop and integration between the various tools, so the end-users can choose what their comfortable with and still be able to COMMUNICATE, COLLABORATE, and be CONTEXTUAL AWARE of the people, info, and processes that they care about.

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  • Ed Brill

    Lawrence, I’m not sure what market share studies you read, but last I checked IDC, I’ve got 40% of the integrated collaborative environment market. And Notes 8 has RSS feeds, a feature called “subscriptions” that came in Notes R5, and the ability to integrate widgets such as Google gadgets right into the view. This is not the domain alone of Microsoft “innovation”.

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  • Marshall Clark


  • Keith Brooks

    Currently the ability to use a truly universal inbox does not exist from the big players.
    Perhaps that will change some day.
    But the reality is many items should come in as links, something Lotus Notes has provided from day one. The ability to send a link of a document, or a view of document or the application linked itself. Like hyperlinks on webpages.
    But I don’t want a whole emailk for a link, just a one liner almost like twitter for it and have THAT filtered to work, friends, football, scotch, projects, etc..

    Do we really want a long totem pole of strings people send us?
    not I, but I can see why bookmark tagging has become interesting to people, although I find it a PITA as we move closer to this reality.

  • Lawrence Liu

    @Marshall, please. I didn’t say, “Must be seamlessly integrated with a Microsoft product.” So, take you ABM hat/mask/earrings/whatever off and really participate in the conversation or go troll somewhere else.

    Anyway, if someone’s “inbox” is GMail, it would be smart for Google to seamlessly integrate social features like tagging (oh, they have!) and flagging (oh, they have!) and perhaps a filter/sort by social distance, etc. into it.

    I posit that CONTEXTUAL AWARENESS is what everyone ultimately wants software to help them increase. It’s what I call the Right Right Brain (TM). If one has to switch context multiple times (into separate apps or web sites) in order to get that awareness, which is exactly what’s happening today with e-mail, feeds, IM, Twitter, Facebook, etc., then it’s no wonder why people are getting stressed out and overly fatigued.

  • Lawrence Liu

    Ed, why so defensive? Did I say anything about IBM not being innovative or Microsoft being the only one innovating in this area?

    So, do you have a URL to that IDC report? What year was it from? Regardless, 40% != “most” :-)

    Here’s a report ( from Ferris Research dated Jan 31, 2008, which states “Exchange has about 65% market share across all organizations.” I think that 65% would qualify as “most,” yes?

    Anyway, I’m not here to debate market share with you, Ed. My apologies to Sam for digressing from his thought provoking blog entry.

  • Ed Brill

    Just for completeness of thread: the IDC report is from July 07 and can be found at

    The Ferris survey asked organizations already on Ferris’s mailing list what they use, and counted all companies equally (one answer = one “share”). I don’t think it’s indicative of much of anything, once you read it.

    Likewise, sorry Sam, but I didn’t want that last bit to go unresponded to.

  • David Ing

    Hi Sam,

    Really interesting post – great stuff. We’re going for the ‘simplest thing that works’ and it looks like a lot of fun, inbox or no:

    Hope to see you about, and if you’re ever in Vancouver then do drop by.

    (Man, that Lawrence guy likes you?)

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  • Michael Williams

    Sam, That's gonna be one DAMN BIG INBOX considering things like this:

  • Michael Williams

    One more thought, maybe the folks at XOBNI (Inbox spelled backwards) could
    develop a "social inbox".  I wrote a post a few weeks back,

    Suffering from Email Overload
    , and proclaimed it's many advantages..and just
    plain ole kick-ass cool features.  You aren't alone in your inbox
    frustration,  that post is one of my top pages…tons of search traffic
    coming from overloaded in-box owners from all over the world! 
    Good news, XOBNI has finally released a public beta!
    Try it out! (It won't solve all your woes, but at least it will clean up your

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  • Srini Srinivasan

    The information overload problem has been exacerbated by the connection overload problem (too many friends). But there is a solution intrinsic in the problem. Now instead of a single level tagging of content, one can first apply a higher level tag to the connections. That is, filter the content through your Personal Graph (tagging your social graph makes it personal). Now you have a meaningful context established in which to manage content. Presumably relationships are more important than the stuff you are interested in.

    However, tagging / labeling / foldering – is always painful when done in isolation in our Inbox. We have all become Information Secretaries constantly squirelling stuff away and searching for it afterward. The power of collaborative tagging / filtering in a social environment is best leveraged by viewing your world through the prism of a Multi-faceted Identity.

    Check out our site. We are in public beta, i.e. work-in-progress but functional enough to get the point across.