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email bankruptcy

Email bankruptcy is an acknowledgement that your email has become unmanageable and the decision to either purge your inbox and start afresh or, more radically, to renounce email altogether.

The origins of email bankruptcy as a term are not clear. One of the earliest examples of the practice, whether identified as such or not, was by Stanford computer science professor Donald E. Knuth. Knuth was an early adopter of email, in 1975. However, he gave it up 15 years later. Quoted in an article in The Washington Post, Knuth explained "I'd get to work and start answering e-mail -- three hours later, I'd say, 'Oh, what was I supposed to do today?'" He took the extreme route and simply stopped using email and has never regretted his decision, proclaiming that "I have been a happy man since Jan. 1 , 1990."

Creative Commons founder, law professor and Wired columnist Larry Lessig popularized the term and concept when he officially declared email bankruptcy in a mass email. In 2004, after spending 80 hours trying to take control of his inbox (which contained unanswered messages dating back two years), Lessig gave up and notified his correspondents that he was abnegating responsibility for all messages currently in his inbox.

Here are the steps Lessig took to declare email bankruptcy:

  1. He collected email addresses of people who had sent messages that he hadn't responded to.
  2. He copied all the email addresses into the Bcc field of a self-addressed email message.
  3. He wrote a polite note explaining that he was not going to respond to messages currently in his inbox (and, presumably, deleted them).
  4. He asked people to resend messages that really needed his attention.

According to Lessig, his declaration was well-received: A few of the recipients simply resent their messages but the vast majority were "kind enough to simply remain silent."

Declaring email bankruptcy absolves you of email indebtedness and allows you to start over with, one hopes, more efficient email management practices. However, as with its financial counterpart, there may be repercussions. Important messages may be lost, for one thing. Furthermore, you may be seen as less responsible. On the whole, email bankruptcy should not be undertaken unless email management is deemed impossible.

This was last updated in March 2008

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