Right now, as we speak, I am on a dozen mailing lists, about half of which I simply got added onto. These mass emails are mostly jokes, forwarded articles and, occasionally, links to other websites. Much of the stuff I receive through these mass emails is interesting. They also take up chunks of time that could be spent in more productive pursuits such as, oh, I don’t know, researching dinosaur bone patterns. For the most part, I enjoy the varied content that friends and acquaintances send me. Every now and then, I rebel.
Today for instance, a gentleman in Kolkata who I have never met sent me his usual daily bulletin. It was an article about glial cells and how they affect the signal-to-noise ratio of sensory neurons. Being someone who aspires to science, I read the entire piece and surfed the websites cited in the story. Before I knew it, the morning had gone.
An acquaintance, whom I shall call the Good Doctor, sends me four, sometimes five, emails a day. The content is varied: jokes, uploads that show how great India is, personality tests, one-liners. Nothing personal, nothing about himself.
In contrast, a friend in New York sends me only personal stuff. She sends me (and countless others) invitations to her jewellery shows, book discussions and dog’s birthday party. Which makes me wonder about gender differences in mass mailing lists—do women send out personal stuff and men, impersonal? Has anyone done a study on that?
I get “cause” emails from the shops I go to. Ants is selling handwoven textiles from Assam; or Maya toys is having a sale. Sometimes galleries send mailers about artists and exhibits. I almost always open the image and it almost always is quite nice.
Most inexplicable of all are the political and economic mass mailings I get. I am too dumb for economics and too smart for politics. Sorry, just kidding. I just said that because it sounded like a nice line. Honestly though, I don’t understand the credit crisis nor do I follow who Mayawati is fighting with now. But I am on three mailing lists that send me stuff like this. About five times a day. I would get off these lists except that I am flattered that the administrators think me intelligent enough to understand the stuff they send. Since I meet them socially, I don’t want to disabuse them of this image of me as this person who reads The Economist cover to cover when in fact, I only read the obituaries and that too occasionally.
Inbox: Research has shown that emails are the most used application on the Internet
Each of these mailing lists includes an informal clause that says something like, “let me know if you want to opt out of this list”. How do you do it though? It would be fine if these were faceless Listserv administrators who you’ll never interact with again; or who won’t be offended if you tell them that you want out. But these are people you sort of know. The Kolkata gentleman, for instance, became known to me through a scathing critique of something I’d written. By exposing my ignorance, he showed me how bright he was. Later, he did me the honour of adding me to his very erudite mailing list. I am now in the redoubtable position of having to prove myself worthy of it. Plus, he is a nice guy and how do you tell him that you want out?
Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
I did actually tell a woman that I wanted to get off. I met her once at a book launch in Mumbai. We had a good conversation, exchanged emails and the next thing I knew, I was on her mailing list. And here is what makes these mailings so compelling: One of the emails this woman sent to me was a speech that Anand Mahindra gave to Nasscom in which he compared the IT market to Hindu gods—Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Or something like that. It was content I would never have come across had this woman not sent it to me.
These mailing lists are today’s version of the town crier. They bring in news and gossip from far and wide. The only problem is that they have ten, if not hundred times more content than the town crier. In other words, it is not the mailing lists that I have a problem with. It is that I am on so many of them.
So what do you do? All this stuff is great but how do all you busy Masters of the Universe make time to read it? One techie friend told me to put filters so that all such mass mailings got routed into my junk mail folder. I tried that and then got roundly yelled at by my mother for not replying to her emails. Turns out that they went into the junk mail because of the over-zealous filters I had installed. It took me 4 hours, accompanied by fluent cursing, to undo the damage.
The problem is that these aren’t really junk emails; they aren’t spam either. They are things I like to read except that I sometimes get overwhelmed by all the information. My brain operates rather slowly and it seems like all these mailings peak at 3pm when I am sort of sagging under the weight of my thought processes anyway. Come teatime and boom, boom, boom. The emails fly in from Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, New York and Singapore.
If I, a mere writer (and I mean this sincerely, not as some kind of twisted disingenuous boast masquerading as humility), get all these mailings, I am sure that all you policy experts, labour reform leaders, technocrats, entrepreneurs and true-blue CEOs get tons of research reports, forwarded stories and updates. What’s your secret? Do you actually read them? Are you able to digest them?
Shoba Narayan wants to start her own mailing list. Except she is afraid everyone will opt out. Write to her at email@example.com