When I started using networked computers, I had two inboxes: e-mail and Usenet. I read every e-mail message I received. I read most Usenet postings in the groups I followed, but it was no big deal if I missed some. Those are the two main types of inboxes: the ones where you pay attention to every message, and the ones where you read the interesting ones and skip the others. Other examples of the first kind of inbox, at least for me, are voice mail and the original inbox: personal letters. An example of the second kind of inbox is the daily news, whether on paper or on radio or television.
I didn’t realize it when I was younger, but there is another kind of inbox: what the people you see frequently are talking about. In one sense this is gossip, in another it is society. This is a kind of inbox which you don’t look for, where you don’t pay attention to every message, where information just kind of passes by you. Mostly you glance at it and forget it, although you usually remember the general gist.
In the last several years that kind of inbox has been copied online, most obviously in Facebook and Twitter and their friends. The difference between them and Usenet is organizational. Usenet was organized around specific themes. Sometimes the theme was completely random, but it meant that only people who wanted something random read that group. Facebook and Twitter are organized around social groups or followers, just like gossip.
Because it’s a pain to have to check lots of inboxes, there are lots of tools these days to copy information from one inbox to another, and, conversely, to let you send information to other people’s inboxes in various different ways. These tools all work differently and have various degrees of effectiveness. At the same time, all popular inboxes struggle with a problem of spam: messages that you don’t really want that are mostly trying to part you from your money in some way.
It would be nice if inboxes were easier to consolidate, if I could look at some master control panel and say “I’d like his blog posts to come to this box in my e-mail, and I’d like her most recent photo to my desktop background” and then change all of it again tomorrow. But in real life anybody who created such a panel would get so bogged down in issues of authenticity and spam that the next big thing would never bother to interoperate with the panel, in fact would probably try to actively avoid it so that they could in fact become the next big thing, rather than being just another inbox.
Meanwhile we’ll all just keep juggling our proliferation of inboxes, which mostly means getting better and better at ignoring them, at accepting that we will never catch up with all of them, and that that’s maybe not perfect, but it’s OK, it’s as good as it gets.