On January 1st, New York Times journalist Nick Bilton, acknowledging that he would never be able to answer all of them, deleted a backlog of 46,315 unanswered emails and, officially declared email bankruptcy. A number of high-profile individuals have declared email bankruptcy over the last decade, the first being Lawrence Lessig in 2004. Just like you would declare it impossible to pay back your debts, by declaring email bankruptcy you acknowledge that is reasonably impossible to answer all your backlog of emails, you delete all of them and officially notify your whole address list with an apologetic email along these lines:
Dear person who has sent me an email over the last 4 years,
Having accumulated a completely unmanageable number of unanswered emails, I had to take the difficult decision to delete all of them. I sincerely apologise for letting you down. If you want me to answer your email, please re-send it to me. I promise that I will try to keep up with emails in the future.
The problem with this procedure is that it constitutes what can be called a disorderly default. Imagine that any individual, firm or government could decide overnight that they didn’t need to pay back their debts: it would be chaos. Nobody would lend money to anyone in fear of not getting their money back. Similarly, a disorderly email bankruptcy can have dramatic consequences. Why would I send emails to people if they can decide at any time that they don’t need to reply? With such a level of uncertainty, in the long run nobody will be sending emails to anyone. If you think about it, there is no reason why we should deal with email bankruptcy differently from a “normal” bankruptcy. We need procedures to make sure that people will reply to their emails, while at the same time helping individuals overwhelmed by a mountain of unanswered emails.
An obvious solution would be an email backlog restructuring procedure. First, individuals should formally file in a formal request for email bankruptcy (below) to be placed under the protection of the state. You don’t want the enforcers of the people you owe replies to come break your fingers. Second, individuals would be placed under the monitoring of a third party and granted more time to reply to their emails. Bailiffs could come to your house and make sure that you devote all your time to replying to the emails. Alternatively, this third party could reply to the unanswered emails, but in exchange of a drastic email adjustment programme to make sure that insolvent emailers will always reply to their emails in future. Of course, the emails answered by the third party should be paid back with an interest. A central goal of these email adjustment programs would be to teach you not to send tons of emails eliciting replies that you won’t be able to answer, and punish you for profligate emailing behavior. Eventually, in last resort, an email backlog “haircut” can be envisaged in case individuals have to default, but the conditions imposed on the debtor should be even harsher for instance by auctioning their computer material. Even then, this solution would still be less catastrophic than the disorderly email bankruptcies described above.