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Way back in 1978 I got my first account on an online bulletin-board system. Using my 300-bits-per-second modem, I would log into a computer somewhere in Allentown, PA, and read and reply to messages people had left for me. If there were messages I thought were particularly important, I would save copies on my home computer in a file I called “oldmail.”

Nearly 25 years later, the fundamental e-mail paradigm hasn’t changed much. Sure, networks and computers are a thousand times faster, and e-mail is now used not just by a few geeks like me but by hundreds of millions of people around the world. But those are only issues of scale. Deep down, e-mail is the same as when I started using it during the Carter administration. A message comes into my mailbox. I read it, and I either file it away or delete it. Although the computer helps, it’s my job to be an efficient file clerk.

The problem is that most users don’t have the training to be file clerks. Is it better to have one mailbox named “Professional” for all of the professional correspondence, or is it better to maintain a separate mailbox for each correspondent? Is it best to create new mailboxes every year, every decade, or never? I don’t know the most efficient way to set up mailboxes so that messages I receive today can be quickly found five years from now. Do you?

None of this matters terribly much if you get five or 10 messages a day. But for those of us who get 100 or more, the sheer mechanics of being a file clerk can consume a significant amount of time-nearly an hour a day, in my case. And we are getting more e-mail messages all the time. That’s because e-mail is more than just person-to-person communication: it is the best way to coordinate a group of people working on the same project.

To be fair, the last quarter century has brought one helpful development in e-mail technology: filters, or rules that automatically route messages to the appropriate mailboxes. Filters can be triggered by the From, To, and Cc lines of the e-mail header; a keyword in the Subject line; and even text in the message body itself. Although filters do a good job of splitting one inbox into many, the difficulty of setting up these rules deters most people from using them. Even worse, filters are fundamentally the wrong solution.

The real problem with e-mail today is in the mailbox and folder metaphors. Sure, they feel like apt models. Paper letters are delivered to physical mailboxes. We throw out the ones we don’t like, and we file those we want to keep in folders or shoe boxes. But e-mail is different. A physical letter can be in only one place at a time. Why should we enshrine that limitation in our computerized systems?

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