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It’s Not Email That’s Broken, It’s You

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I know this is going to foment controversy, but screw it. I’m tired of reading about how email is fundamentally flawed and about all the clever new ways to “fix” or “reinvent” it. Email isn’t broken! Email is great. I love email; it’s my favorite way to communicate. Some email apps, servers, and protocols are better than others, but honestly, it would be OK with me if email stayed as is forever. If your relationship with email is unsatisfactory, email isn’t the problem. It’s you.

Now, I assume that by this point, many people have already stopped reading and started commenting about how wrong I am. That’s great; those of us who are sticking around for the rest of the article can safely ignore all those comments and have a polite and friendly (if one-sided) conversation.

I’ve been thinking about the whole alleged email problem in recent weeks largely due to the hype surrounding the new Mailbox app for iPhone (see “Mailbox for iPhone Eases Email Triage but Lacks Key Features,” 22 February 2013), which purports to finally “put email in its place.” In the midst of the Mailbox frenzy, Maria Popova, of the highly regarded Brain Pickings blog, stated on Twitter that she was declaring email bankruptcy — summarily deleting 7,487 unread email messages from her inbox because she knew she could never get to them all. All this, in turn, reminded me of an influential blog post by my friend Tantek Çelik, who declared in 2008 that Email is Efail.

I could give lots more examples, but it’s clear that a great many people are completely overwhelmed by email. That’s a problem, for sure, and it needs to be solved. What bothers me is when people blame the medium. The world’s obesity problem isn’t the fault of food, and the world’s debt problem isn’t the fault of money. Your email problems aren’t the fault of email as a communications system, and they’re probably not even the fault of the tools you’re using. It’s easy to pick on email because it won’t fight back. But the real problem for most people who feel email is out of control is that they haven’t taken responsibility for figuring out why the problem exists for them and how to change their habits to address it.

Email is not unique in this regard; the same could be said of Twitter overload or Facebook overload, for example. But at least in the case of social networking services, you get to decide who you receive messages from, and there’s no technological barrier (even if there is a psychological one) to unfollowing someone on Twitter or unfriending someone on Facebook. With email, the solutions are less obvious and the stakes are higher.

Don’t misunderstand; I wouldn’t presume to say, “Why don’t you just grow up and deal with your problem?” as though you’re merely being too lazy to implement some obvious and foolproof fix. Changing email habits is hard, like changing eating habits. How many people do you know who have tried one diet after another — with the very best intentions and perhaps even encouraging results — only to find that after months or years, they slip back into their old ways? Email overload is not a trivial thing to deal with. But people have successfully and definitively dealt with it, and you can too. Before you can do that, however, you have to accept that you alone have the responsibility to make email work for you. If you’re waiting for the right app or service to come along and magically fix it for you, you’re going to have a long wait.

Let’s go back to the Mailbox app I mentioned earlier. I tried it, and I hated it. It is, for me, utterly unusable. I could write many paragraphs about how awful I think its overall approach is and how ineffective its particular implementations are. But — and again, I’m assuming we just lost a bunch more people who have already headed for the comments — none of that matters. If you like Mailbox and it makes your email experience better, more power to you. What works for one person may not work for everyone. We all have to find our own paths to email sanity.

The system I’ve used for years works perfectly — for me. My inbox rarely has more than a handful of messages in it, and it’s usually empty when I go to bed. I don’t feel anxious or overwhelmed by my email, even though I receive a vast number of messages every day. Several years ago, I sat down and thought about the kinds of messages I receive and what I need to do in order to dispose of them quickly and efficiently. Based on that, I came up with a method I’m comfortable with. (You can read about a somewhat generic version of my system in my Macworld series “Empty Your Inbox.”)

Adam Engst developed his own way of interacting with email, which he documented in the four-part series “Zen and the Art of Gmail.” His approach (see the second article in the series for details) is as different from mine as can be — I’m certain that neither one of us could follow the other’s system for a day without driving ourselves utterly batty. As tempted as I may be to say his way is “wrong” and mine is “right,” they’re actually both right, because they suit our respective personalities. We’ve each identified what causes us stress, what we’re willing to pay attention to, and what we tend to ignore — and we’ve adopted systems that work with, rather than against, our proclivities. There are other approaches, too, including Merlin Mann’s famous Inbox Zero and innumerable variations thereof, such as Keith Rarick’s Gmail version, which Maria Popova is now trying to follow.

So, even though I’m extremely fond of my own system, and even though I have strong feelings about some common habits (I truly can’t bear the idea of using one’s inbox as a to do list), I’m not trying to prescribe a particular approach to email. What I am trying to say is that you probably don’t receive more email than Adam Engst, Merlin Mann, or I do, and if we can get to the point where we feel email is under control, so can you. If you find that one of our systems works “out of the box,” that’s fantastic; go for it! If you need to adapt a system to your own needs or invent something entirely new, that’s also fine. But it’s going to require effort. You have to take a few hours of your life to analyze the ways you use email and determine what parts of your approach aren’t working, and then adjust some of your behaviors.

You may find it helpful to think about the metaphors we use when talking about email as if they were literal. Would you ever consider declaring postal mail bankruptcy — tossing out all the hundreds of envelopes that appeared in your physical mailbox over a period of months without even a glance? Would you allow envelopes to accumulate in a physical inbox on your desk until the pile reached the ceiling? I’m guessing no to both; somehow, nearly everyone finds some way to cope with mail when it arrives in physical form, even though there may be a lot of it, because some of it is important and there could be dire consequences to ignoring those past-due utility bills. But “coping” might include taking your name off of mailing lists, hiring an assistant, or taking other more drastic measures. Do the ways you’ve dealt with paper mail suggest ideas for dealing with email?

Learning to cope with email may involve things that feel painful, such as:

  • Unsubscribing from mailing lists you enjoy, particularly those that distract you into reading more (but hopefully not TidBITS!)

  • Switching to a different email provider that filters spam more effectively

  • Telling your friends and family that you’d prefer not to receive pictures of adorable kittens and endlessly forwarded jokes

  • Forcing yourself to respond to difficult messages immediately

  • Deleting or filing certain messages without taking action on them

Perhaps you’ll have to do all these things, or none of them. That’s not for me to say. You even get to decide what your actual goal is. Maybe having an empty inbox is irrelevant to you and it’s not a good measure of whether you’re in control of your email. But in any case, if your current approach isn’t working for you, the one thing you mustn’t do is shift the blame to email as a medium or to an imperfect email app.

If email is the problem, you alone are the solution.

 

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Comments about It’s Not Email That’s Broken, It’s You
(Comments are closed.)

Frans Moquette  2013-02-23 15:40
Agreed, it's not e-mail as such, but it't not you (the receiver) either. Unlike obesity, where you can control the intake, e-mail comes from others. The flaw with e-mail is that it does not cost the sender anything to send a message to multiple recipients. Reply to all is easy and costs nothing extra. People don't think about whom they need to send a message to. They would if they had to pay a dollar for each recipient a mesaage was addressed to. But they don't. So the recipient is left with the problem to select the messages he should respond to from the junk he can ignore. The only thing that can solve this problem is people. Think before you send. There are no tools in the world that can do that for you.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-23 15:46
It's true that you can't control who sends you email, but there are certainly steps you can take to limit or channel your intake. I totally agree one should think before sending, and if you're on the receiving end of mail form people who don't, be sure to tell them how you feel.
Laine Lee  2013-02-23 15:56
"The world’s obesity problem isn’t the fault of food, and the world’s debt problem isn’t the fault of money."

I just thought it interesting that you didn't postulate that the world's violence problem isn't the fault of weapons or firearms.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-23 16:00
I thought the discussion would be controversial enough without opening that can of worms.
Paul Ellis  2013-02-23 16:06
There was no need. It isn't. Most of the world's violence involves neither, being limited to good old-fashioned fists. Look at the stats on domestic violence.

The two examples cited are sufficient. Good article.
Adam Bell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-02-23 16:44
I think that Joe's examples of his system and Adam's being totally different says it all. I too devised a system for filtering and storing my email starting way back with the first paid version of Eudora. When Apple's Mail came along and Eudora was fading into the sunset, I simply configured Mail to be like Eudora in as many ways as I could manage. Works for me, would probably drive Joe and Adam nuts.
Norm Harris  2013-02-23 16:49
Excellent. Right on and enjoyable read.
Jonathan Lundell  2013-02-23 16:50
My approach to high-volume lists is to filter them at the server into their own mailbox. They never hit my inbox, and I scan them when I feel like it. Bonus: not in my iPhone inbox either.
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-23 17:06
Excellent suggestion. I do the same thing!

Joe
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-24 12:19
I do the same thing, but you know what, I almost never read the lists that don't appear in my inbox. :-) Once they're out of sight, they're out of mind. I could unsubscribe, but I dip in once in a blue moon, and space for email is essentially infinite.
M Dunn  2013-02-23 17:10
Joe, excellent article. Guy Kawasaki used to write of his own techniques for handling a daily torrent of e-correspondence and it would be interesting to hear if any of his message has changed in 10 or so years. Perhaps you might interview him please?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-24 12:21
Guy has said that his technique is that he just sits down and does it. See http://tidbits.com/article/12744#comments
Jonathan Lundell  2013-02-23 17:57
A tip for (OS X) Mail.app users: if you're not already using flags productively, rename the first four (red/orange/yellow/green) "Now", "Soon", "Sometime", and "Reference", respectively.

Create a Smart Mailbox that shows only unread messages.

When new mail shows up in Unread, and you don't deal with it on the spot, give it one of those flags. Look at your flag mailboxes (automatic once you flag messages) on some reasonable schedule—daily for Now, at least weekly for Soon, &c.

If messages pile up in Now, you obviously didn't mean it, so demote them as appropriate.

(I also move mail out of Inbox to some appropriate filing place, but I imagine that the system would work without that. My filing system, once rather fine-grained, has become increasingly general (fewer boxes) over the years, as I rely more on search than remembering where the hell I filed it.)
Mariva H. Aviram  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-03-04 14:29
Excellent suggestion. My flags are more specific, but they work well for me: Priority (red), To Process (orange), Orders & Receipts (yellow), Discounts (green), Personal (blue), Business (purple), and To Read (gray).
Gary Bastoky  2013-02-23 20:09
Yay! I was starting to wonder if I was the only one not complaining about email. I've started thinking lately, that with all the hyper-sharing going on these days if people feel that they must complain about something, anything just to make their voices heard. I'm very happy with email, even if it's not a cool thing to say out loud. Thanks for the very readable, enjoyable article.
ccstone  2013-02-24 05:32
“The system I’ve used for years works perfectly — for me. My inbox rarely has more than a handful of messages in it, and it’s usually empty when I go to bed.”

Amen. I spent years developing and tweaking a system that works for me.

I used to routinely deal with 600+ emails a day, but I got tired of fooling with that quantity and have trimmed things down to ~ 100-150 (personal, technical, and various subscriptions).

Like Adam I was an inveterate Eudora user and still desperately miss its power-user features. Unlike Adam I dislike Gmail intensely and just can't use it.

When I finally gave up Eudora I tried everything available on the Mac and didn't like any of the available offerings but adding a few plugins to Apple's Mail.app made it productive if still not ideal.

[Free] MailFollowUp, QuoteFix
[Commercial] MailActOn, MailHub, Meta

Triaging incoming mail with filters and using 28 smart-mailboxes in descending priority keeps my InBox free of all but the most important traffic.

The MailHub plugin in particular makes filing things appropriately a breeze — it intelligently guesses where you want to file a message and will do so with a keystroke, and you can quickly search for other locations.

In conclusion: I agree with Joe that email is *not* broken, but I believe that email clients available on the Mac still leave a lot to be desired.

-ccs
makfan  2013-02-24 10:33
Good article. I know the problem is that I haven't adapted my systems over time. What used to work no longer does. I may have to declare a bankruptcy at some point, but I know in my heart what I really need to do is unsubscribe. I can read lots of email messages in a day, but I can't read lots of multi-page emails.
Mark Percival  2013-02-24 05:39
Top article. I couldn't agree more. I have my system which works well for me. I use standard apple mail app and several email addresses and think about which one I'm using for what purpose. A bit of an effort to begin with but soon enough a pattern is set. The issue is the 'thinking' part. If you drift along then email clutter catastrophe is inevitable.
Andrew  2013-02-24 05:47
My trick is to go through my inbox twice a day to zero, and use Spamsieve which you train over time.Any tasks are sent to omnifocus, calendar entries are added via mails ability to recognise dates.
The key is to never let your mail build up.
I know Joe disagrees with me and I am sure Adam does too, but as we all got different approaches, I might as well add mine. I started using e-mail in 1990 and joined a mailing-list then, but had to print the messages as I had no computer myself. Later I borrowed Macs at the University and saved messages to floppies. But from late 1995 until now I have saved most e-mail of any relevance on my computer.

I am still very conservative about e-mail and do not like filters as Adam also points out that one does not tend to read filtered out messages. So apart from 1-2 filters I sort manually everything. I delete as much as I can, then skim the headers of mailing-list messages and then sort them away. Then flag important messages that needs to be acted upon and answers the ones that could be answered quickly and file yet more away into appropriate mailboxes. I add all sent messages to my Inbox as I have never figured out why anyone would want to have them apart from the incoming related messages (do you save ordinary letters in different boxes depending on Sent/Received?). So my Sent mailbox is always empty for all my accounts.

When I get time I trim down the Inbox, which I just did this Friday going from +2200 messages to 267 in my work e-mail account. Joe has a point in not using the Inbox as a to-do list, but there are items there that are not easily translated into to-do items and even if it would be possible to do so, this act itself is time consuming, so I divide attention to to-do things between the Inbox and Notes (which works very nice with iCloud … (if one is not too quick …)). I tried special programs for to-do administration, but often they add to much "overhead" to me where I need to think of the programs working instead of what I should do. I complement this with noting things of importance in 1Password and FileMaker and documents in Dropbox (+ some on my own MBA). It is not perfect, but I find it hard to circumvent direct checking of everything that comes in to the mailbox (fortunately I do not have too many mailing-lists to follow, but I also unsubscribe if needed).

I do worry a bit for people having over 20000 e-mails in their Inbox (and I have seen a couple of business bosses in situations like that). I cannot appreciate the trend of moving toward webmail - I use Spotlight to find things from previous mails + other things on my computer in the same search - how do you do that with webmail? (It does not come across as a serious alternative to me.)
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-24 16:11
As much as I'd love to argue particular points (like moving stuff from Sent to Inbox), the important thing is that you have a system that works for you. And if it does, then it's nobody else's business how weird it is :-).
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-24 16:16
As Joe says, whatever works for you is what's best for you.

I can't speak to other webmail systems, most of which I've been unimpressed with, but Gmail's search is far faster and better than Spotlight's in my experience. It should be - if there's one thing Google knows, it's searching.
Except Gmail only finds full word matches - so if you can't QUITE spell the whole name, or remember if something was mentioned as plural, you won't find it.
Michael  2013-02-25 19:38
The recently released InfoClick from nisus software pretty much solved my search problems in Mail.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-26 06:00
That's true, but in years of use, I've never found it to be an actual problem, for two reasons. First, Gmail provides autocomplete guesses as you type in the search field. And second, it's just not the way my brain works - if I can remember anything about a message, I'll remember a full word. I haven't run into problems with plurals ever, but it may be that Gmail is searching for both singular and plural simultaneously - when I search for "kitten" in my email, and then change the search to "kittens", the search results don't seem to change.
Mariva H. Aviram  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-03-03 20:50
I would like to know 1) how often you search for "kittens" in your email, and 2) how often you find "kittens." Please feel free to post photos.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-03-04 06:48
1) Never before. :-)

2) Looks like I have 5 messages in my mailbox with the word "kitten" and a photo attachment of a kitten that a family member just acquired or that a friend is trying to get someone to adopt. (Gmail search on "kitten has:attachment")
Mariva H. Aviram  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-03-04 14:28
Wow, what a revealing search! I just found 20 mentions of "kitten" in mine. Subject lines include "kitten in a hamster ball," "ocelot kitten," and "soldier feeds kitten in Iraq."
Andrea  2013-02-24 18:12
I agree here too, how you handle email is what can make the true difference between email chaos and email zen. You just have to find the right email tool that you enjoy using, that feels right and readjust your email habits to manage your inbox efficiently. Perhaps an email app that guides you in the right direction with email management.
Sherman Wilcox  2013-02-25 08:14
Although I sort of like Mailbox (maybe that's not a totally fair judgment, because I don't really use Gmail, but I'd like to see the app when it becomes compatible with Exchange, which is what I'm forced to use at my university), I fully agree with Joe's article.
Morri Young  2013-02-25 16:51
I am surprised that the discussion hasnt mentioned sanebox which has provided me with an extraordinary insight into intelligent sorting of mail, and helping me (and I would say thousands of others) prioritise my mail.
Its an aid. It doesnt read my mail or reply, but like a good tool, it is intuitive, rarely fails and adapts subtly over time. Strong recommendation from me.
(BTW Mailbox absolutely failed for me too, within 5 minutes of loading it it was deleted.. and I waited and waited!)
Joe Kissell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-25 17:15
Someone mentioned SaneBox to me in an email message this morning, and it was the first time I'd heard of it. It doesn't seem like something I'd use personally; my existing system makes it unnecessary. But, you know, to each his own.
Scott Hards  2013-02-25 17:18
Enthusiastically seconded! I use Sanebox as well and couldn't imagine life without it. The ability to snooze email into the future, and have it presorted intelligently is phenomenal. And it works on any IMAP email platform or device. www.sanebox.com.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-26 06:02
I hadn't heard of SaneBox before either, but it looks like a combination of Gmail's Priority Inbox (which does a fabulous job of separating out my most important messages) and the Boomerang extension for Gmail.
Personally I was in email hell until I read
Getting Things Done by David Allen and later,
the Low Information Diet by Tim Ferris (a chapter in 4 Hour Work Week).

Key features

- only check twice a day & always process to empty

- discipline to only read each message once

- NO folders, just archive or delete

- a trusted system for actions that I can't perform straight away (for me it's OmniFocus)

- train my friends & colleagues through constant feedback & auto-reply messages
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-26 06:07
Good to hear that you've figured out a system that works for you!

I read both those books too, and found that David Allen's GTD system - which I tried hard to use for quite some time - required too much moving of things around.

As for Tim Ferris, well, let's just say that the title of his book is intentionally fantastical. He doesn't have anything approaching a normal job, so anything he says should be taken with a mine of salt. :-)

But again, if it works for you, that's all that's important.
Dave Price  2013-02-25 20:10
In 2008 I switched to Gmail and I stopped filing messages in folders. I delete most emails, but the ones I feel I may need to refer to someday stay in my Inbox. I have 11,733 messages in my Inbox, of which 278 are unread. When I need to look for something the Mail Spotlight can usually find it in a flash. AWESOME. Every 3 months or so (say March 1, 2013) I'll delete the previous year's messages from Jan, Feb, March 2012. It works for me. And I'm glad Joe didn't bring up the "guns don't kill people" argument.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-26 06:10
This is akin to what I do, except I use Gmail's Web interface and the only things I ever delete are test messages (since Gmail doesn't ever slow down due to lots of mail). I do have a few labels to separate certain types of messages out of my incoming stream, and to be able to find certain unsearchable messages (order receipts, mostly) after the fact.
Dave Price  2013-02-25 20:15
I forgot to mention... I don't do Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Linked In. Social networking can really suck you in. If my friends want to communicate with me they know my email address. Also, I used to do RSS news feeds and subscribed to hundreds of feeds. Then I went on a long vacation and when I came back I couldn't face the backlog so I stopped. Glad I did.
Eliezer Blasberg  2013-02-25 23:54
This is all very well and good, but on the iPhone I still feel Mail is a disaster. I currently have 158 unread messages on my iPhone. I am NOT willing to sit there and tap 158 times each message I want to delete. If I did this everyday, I'd be spending most of my day just deleting unwanted mail. So I don't use email on my iPhone. Sad, but that's the way it is for me (if there was the equivalent of a "click and drag" so I could select all of them or a group of them at once, it would be a different story)...
Brian Gibb  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-02-26 06:08
In the list of messages, tap "Edit". This puts little circles beside each message. Tap the circle for each message you want to delete (or file), then choose the action you want at the bottom.
Infinite Vortex  2013-02-26 03:20
While there's a lot to be gained from controlling your email on a personal level there's also the physical aspects to consider.

The larger one's mailboxes are and the more email that's simply accumulated, especially in the inbox, the more "costly" everything will be. That ranges from longer mailbox sync/update times with the mail server, much higher data throughput needs (extremely important for mobile users) through to longer and larger backups (Time Machine or clones).

I find that managing my mail on an annual basis allows for very simple mailbox rotation, exporting and trimming.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-26 06:13
You're absolutely right - I've been struggling to move my Mail folder for Apple Mail around on external hard disks because it's over 40 GB in size.

Luckily, this isn't a real problem for me because Mail is only a backup of Gmail for me (and my Eudora archive from years past); having everything in Gmail and using Gmail's Web and mobile clients eliminates all the "physical" issues related to email. And in situations where offline access is necessary, it's not hard to point an IMAP client at it temporarily.
Infinite Vortex  2013-02-27 04:48
I'm actually surprised you find enough speed and efficiency to go GMail full time over implementing a local mail server to handle the bulk, of not all, of your mail storage needs.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-02-27 06:14
After many years of using Eudora, I found every other local client a bad clone of Eudora. Gmail rethinks how email works, and once I sat down and thought about how I wanted to interact with email, and how I needed to, it became clear that it was far more efficient. No more checking and sending, no more fussing with too-large mailboxes, no more fighting with the one-mailbox-per-message limitations of IMAP, really good single-key keyboard controls, and so on. But I'm sure my system wouldn't work for everyone.
Patrick Dennis  2013-02-27 14:24
I appreciated this article a lot... Sometimes you don't realize things in life that cause low-level stress until they are fixed. My email is fixed. One comment to your method (and the Inbox Zero method) that I've used to help prune the email is to have a filter/label/folder (whichever you use) called "Keep Temp" that I immediately file all email in that I know I'll never need again after a certain time/date/etc ... A thread about scheduling a phone call for example, a tracking number for an ordered item, a limited time sale that I may or may not act on that will expire soon, etc. I'm actually amazed at how many emails fit into the category "I couldn't imagine any possible reason I'd ever need to keep this." Every once in a while I go in and clean out hundreds of old messages or threads in this category.
Bo K Engelbrecht  2013-02-28 05:57
I just want to chime in to all that miss Eudora, I have been with Eudora since 1.51 but switched (as I wanted to leave Rosetta) some years back to GyazMail, with some (if not alway to easy) tweaks it becomes VERY close to Eudora (I do miss the ability to change subject, and the mails includes all enclosed files and therefore takes space). But it is fast and extremely reliable.
Another ex-Eudora user with a big thumbs-up for GyazMail. Unlike Apple Mail, it is easy to add accounts and configure. (Am I the only person who uses GMail POP3 accounts?) I demoed myriad plugins for Mail; it is easy to spend $60+ and still not get all the features one wants... GyazMail costs $18.

Like I did during 12+ years using Eudora, I use filters and account/sender-specific mailboxes (folders) so I immediately know where a particular message is from and if it requires immediate attention. As a result my in-boxes are usually empty...

GMail? I only use it minimally for things such as CraigsList communications. My beef with Google: automatically scanning the text of my e-mail so I can receive targeted ads. It's creepy, plain and simple... I don't care if it's a computer doing the scanning. We have to trust that Google isn't doing something else with that scanned text... and I don't trust Google one bit.

Giving up my privacy for a "free" e-mail service is too much for me to pay.