Nicholas Christakis: Email bankruptcy

Lightning struck my home recently and the power surge resulted in my computer crashing. I lost a small file that kept track of several dozen emails (out of the well over 4000) that i had received in the last two months and that were still awaiting a reply from me. These emails were ones that I needed to respond to, but just not urgently, so my practice has been to accumulate them until a particular day when I don’t have much else to do. Alas, in two months, such a day had not occurred.

My IT advisor told me the file was unrecoverable, and so he recommended that I simply email all the people who had sent me something in the last two months (there were hundreds of such people) and ask them to re-transmit their correspondence — if indeed a reply from me was still required. I got a few dozen replies, including a couple of people who informed me that I owed them large sums I was previously unaware of, and one who said that I had promised to send her the secret to the fountain of youth.

But this experience suggested to me that what I really should have done was something more drastic: I should have taken advantage of the opportunity and declared “Email Bankruptcy.” This is a last-resort practice that I read about recently whereby busy people send a note to all their contacts saying that they are hopelessly behind in their emails and must start over. Here is the delicious part: they repudiate their debts and do not respond to any prior correspondence.

There are more extreme varieties too. For example, one could add the caveat to one’s bankruptcy declaration that one is going to ignore not only all prior emails, but also all prior work requested in such emails. Or, one step even further, one could declare the intention of ignoring all prior correspondents. One could start afresh with one’s social network. In fact, I had one colleague who changed his email address and started anew, only informing 20 people or so of his new address, and ignoring his old one.

I can at least fantasize about such possibilities, can’t I?