Unread Count

Why do so many people have these three- or four- or even five-digit inbox unread counts? I become uncomfortable when I have more than about five unread emails, or if there are twenty emails of whatever status in my inbox — the rest get archived, of course. Out of sight, out of mind. Whew. It’s hard for me to fathom how anybody can sleep knowing they have such a scary number of unread emails waiting for them.

Why does the status of being unread matter, one might ask? There are already so many ways to classify things in the typical inbox: stars or labels or folders or flags or whatever your mail service may call them. Well, the thing that makes the unread qualifier stand out is that it already has meaning; you don’t need to assign it any. It means you haven’t read it! Thank you, Captain Obvious.

If you know how to use email, there are no good reasons to ignore the status. Is the email actually not important to the point where you won’t even bother to read it? In that case, why is it even in your inbox? If it’s spam, mark it as such; spam filters are pretty effective nowadays, but only if you train them, and even if not it only takes one click to get rid of it. If it’s some notification you don’t care about, unsuscribe or fine-tune your subscription. As invasive as web services are getting nowadays, I haven’t yet seen a legitimate one that doesn’t provide a link to let you do one of these things, even if it’s concealed in small gray text at the bottom of the email. Should you encounter a notification that doesn’t have these links or doesn’t stop spawning evil clones after you tell it to, don’t think twice; it is spam and should be mercilessly filtered as such. And if you still have two hundred emails left after all that, you should either rethink your values or start reading them now.

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Web Service Envy

I discover things on the internet. That is, I think, a very large portion of what it’s for. I follow links and links to links and repeatedly refresh an RSS reader once every five minutes. But there are so many places to look, so many environments to feel out, so many services to pick from that I agonize forever over all of the choices.

Sometimes I wonder, why can’t we all just have one service for The Internet? Take a look at this wonderful array of icons I bumped into during geography research! (Images are an extremely important way of engaging one’s audience, but I’m not using a screenshot so you won’t be tricked into trying to click on them and because it looks cooler. Hence the awesome horizontal artifacts.)
[A badly taken picture of a box of icons for too many sharing services]
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There’s a good reason it’s called the information age. Communication has become alarmingly cheap. People get whatever they want published randomly for free. And we love to do this. There are always, always thousands of fresh Reddit links waiting every morning.

In contrast, it’s a little worrying by how much I (and, I’ll bet, a lot of other people in this generation) have lessened in-depth reading. Not everybody is good at producing long reams of text… and not everybody is good at absorbing them either, which is why tl;drs has pretty much become a reflex for anybody on online discussion boards posting more than a paragraph.

But just to focus on me: My intensive book-reading time has been steadily dropping for a long time. Perhaps a few years ago teachers would have this form where you had to read half an hour every day and fill it out, and I would find not doing it difficult. Now most of the time has been replaced by wiki-laddering on the computer. Well, recently my mom dragged me off to the library where I discovered the seventh Demonata book and some other arbitrary books, and I sped through the former last night, but the books like these I really get absorbed in are hard to find. I suck at finding good books in a library. I wish I could pin it on my tastes becoming more discriminative and critical (which is also true, I think), but of course I know most of it just because those Google Reader link-swarms give me more points of thrill with less effort.

I don’t know if, in itself, this is inherently bad. Clearly, it gives the reader the choice of choosing which articles to read deeply into after getting a feel for the general direction of each. To a lesser extent, this has always been how the radio and news stations work. There are many events that everybody should know about at least in passing.

And in certain places, shorter messages seem indisputably the better way. I don’t really see any benefit from writing a hundred words for every vague acquaintance’s birthday (except as an incredibly classy way to procrastinate.) There are always messages on any birthday star’s FB wall, in an amount directly proportional to the number of friends who the star has.

But personally, I would still rather have one devoted, long-ish message of appreciation from a friend than a thousand skin-deep sentences of congratulations from a horde of people most of whom I can just barely recognize. Thousands of one-sentence mentions concerning current events and obscure bits of trivia don’t make much impression and don’t allow much depth of thought. The shape of Pringles are hyperbolic paraboloids—or parabolic hyperboloids or something—very interesting, but hell if it will turn up again in my life while I still remember the fact. It would be entirely useless if the whole world only knew about a new extraterrestrial super-plague in passing. I need more big, scary text walls.

tl;dr: If you just skipped here then you have the same problem as I.