TL;DR: Your emails are too long

photo credit: Urlesque Buttons via photopin (license)
photo credit: Urlesque Buttons via photopin (license)

I recently met with an interesting startup from Israel called TL;DR that has changed the way I’m thinking about and using email.

TL;DR stands for Too Long; Didn’t Read. It started as a quip used on Web forums and now occasionally stands in as a shorthand for “Here’s the summary of the long-winded thing I just wrote.”

The TL;DR app only works on iPhone 5 and 6 models, and I don’t have one of those, so I’m not actually using the app. But its approach resonated with me: It encourages you to write very short emails by explicitly giving you a “TL;DR” box to summarize your messages in 30 words or less. In some cases that turns out to be all you need.

It also presents incoming emails in a Facebook-like “card” view so you can easily scan them and dispose of them or reply to them. Neat.

But the philosophy, not the app, is my takeaway:

1. Most emails are too long. That’s fixable: I’m now skipping most of the greetings, the signoffs, and the excess verbiage I used to use. I’m writing emails more like Tweets now.

Sure, I sometimes write longer, when I need to convey a lot of information or I’m being extra-polite when introducing myself to a new person. But my default email is now very short.

2. If you treat email as an endless stream of social data, its less burdensome. Somehow email has come to seem like “a pile of things I have to deal with” rather than “a series of messages I might be interested in.” But you can look at your inbox more like Twitter, and it changes your relationship to it. Older than a week? Forget it; I’m not feeling obligated to look at it. Next year, my cutoff might be a day or two.

Finally, a tip: I found an easy way to scan through Gmail in a way that speeds up reading a lot. It is not as elegant as the TL;DR app demo I saw, but it is almost as fast.

You need to enable Gmail shortcut keys for this. Here’s my current workflow:

Open up the first message in your inbox. Look at it, and if there’s no action to take, press the [ key (the left square bracket), which archives the current message and then displays the next one. This works better than Y, which archives the current message but then returns you to the inbox.

In this way, I can plow through a lot of messages just by going [ [ [ [.

If there is an action to take on a message, you can reply to the message quickly (press R), add a star (press S), or defer taking action by moving to the next message while leaving the current one in the inbox (press J).

Also useful: Press M to mute a message thread, so you won’t see it in your inbox again unless someone directs it explicitly at you. This is really useful for those long, useless intra-office pile-on threads.

Using this workflow I’ve been able to read most of my incoming “Priority” messages every day, while leaving a minimal number of other messages in my inbox for later followup or monitoring.

And as for the rest? I don’t worry about missing them any more than I worry about seeing every single Facebook update.

Here’s an Oatmeal comic about the problem with email. It’s kind of long, so TL;DR: Your emails are too long. Write shorter.

Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal
Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal (This is just the first panel — click through to read the rest of the comic)
TL;DR: Your emails are too long

Heroic levels of hype

I’m going to try something new this week. I’ve been admiring emails by Om Malik, Alexis Madrigal, and Caitlin Dewey, who send daily or weekly lists of links to interesting things to read. (You should sign up for their newsletters — all three are wonderful, in very different ways.)

And my occasional emails have felt a little self centered. I write just a handful of posts every week, after all. And yet each week I come across a lot of wonderful things I’d like to share: great stories written by the VentureBeat team, things I saved to Instapaper, long reads on Medium, links I tweeted, and more.

So I’d like to try sending you a few interesting links in each of my weekly emails. Just a few: I’ll keep it short and limit it to high-quality things you might actually enjoy reading.

The focus will reflect my day job — lots of business technology news — but I might start including some things off that path too. And I will continue to include links to my weekly columns.

Let me know what you think!


Hillary’s Email [Medium]
A minor scandal erupted last week about Hillary Clinton using a personal email server, instead of the official State Department email, for her entire term as Secretary of State. Here’s a really smart take on that. “It’s probably the case that if Hillary Clinton was focusing solely on security, using her personal email with 2 Factor Authentication was probably way *more* secure than using the honeypot mess of IT that is the State Department’s email servers.”

The Year We Broke the Internet [Esquire]
News, or “newsiness”? “We in the media have been struggling for twenty years to solve that riddle, and this year, the answer arrived: Big Viral, a Lovecraftian nightmare that has tightened its thousand-tentacled grip on our browsing habits with its traffic-at-all-costs mentality—veracity, newsworthiness, and relevance be damned.

Much Ventured, Much Gained [Foreign Affairs]
A rare interview with Michael Moritz, one of the most successful VCs in history. “Clarity of thought. The ability to communicate clearly. A great sense of mission. A massive willingness to persevere. A willingness to make painful decisions. Extraordinary energy. And a belief that he or she has embarked on their life’s work. Those are the hallmarks of the truly wonderful entrepreneurs behind the handful of fantastic companies.”

What to Think, Ep. 44: Using big data to improve your March Madness bracket [VentureBeat]
In this episode of VentureBeat’s weekly podcast, Jordan Novet and I do our best to cover for our almost complete ignorance regarding the NCAA in order to have what turns out to be a really interesting conversation with Nik Bonaddio, the founder of NumberFire.
And here’s my column for this week:Welcome to Hero City, land of opportunity — and heroic levels of hype

The first thing you notice when you walk in the front door of Hero City is a gleaming, black Tesla. Except the Tesla has been cut in half, lengthwise, and converted into a reception desk.

The second thing you notice is that, underneath the sweeping, high ceiling, in front of the grand staircase up to the second floor, dozens of desks are arrayed, about half of them empty, the other half with young entrepreneurs hunched over laptops, typing away, working on their plans to change the world.

Then — over there on the wall to the right: a giant mural. Two stories high and probably fifty feet wide, it covers one entire side of this giant room. Painted in comic-book style — by DC Comics artist Jim Lee — it features Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin. Robin is saying “Holy amazing opportunity, Batman!” Wonder Woman, who is standing next to a group of professionals (a lab coat-wearing doctor, a tie-wearing office worker, and a hard hat-wearing construction manager) is saying “Unleash the Heroes!”

And next to Robin stands a 15-foot-high cartoon portrait of Hero City founder, third-generation venture capitalist, and political gadfly Timothy C. Draper, ripping open his standard-issue VC blue dress shirt to reveal an orange superhero leotard with a Draper logo on it.

Draper, you suddenly realize, kind of looks like Superman — in the portrait as in real life. And damned if he isn’t making the very most of that resemblance.

continue reading:  Welcome to Hero City, land of opportunity — and heroic levels of hype

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Heroic levels of hype

I want to go there.

This week, Science published a noise map of the U.S., showing where the loudest and quietest places are.

It reminded me of a tree map of the U.S. published a couple of years ago.

If I were a maps geek, I’d try to combine these two maps so I could see at a glance the places that are both filled with trees and quiet. Because those are the places I want to go.

Sometimes a tree-filled and noisy place, like Central Park, can be invigorating, while a quiet and treeless desert, like Death Valley, has its own special charms, too. But most of the time what I’m missing is being among the trees, in silence, like a druid.

New map show's America's quietest places, from Science Magazine
New map show’s America’s quietest places, from Science Magazine
Where the trees are, from the NASA Earth Observatory
Where the trees are, from the NASA Earth Observatory
I want to go there.

Facebook’s fake “real names” policy

Dana Lone HillIn October, Facebook issued a very clear statement saying that it’s never been the company’s policy to require legal names — but rather, to require people to use the names they go by in real life. “For Sister Rosa, that’s Sister Rosa. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that’s Lil Miss Hot Mess,” a company spokesperson said.

But Facebook is repeatedly reneging on that promise. For Native Americans, for instance, it insists that names like “Dana Lone Hill” don’t meet its guidelines — and then it requires legal documentation (copies of a driver’s license, for instance). For punk music writers like Legs McNeil, it requires a more “legitimate” sounding name. For video blogger Jay Smooth, it briefly suspended his account (and then reinstated it when Smooth, who has quite a following, complained about it on Twitter.)

Whenever the company gets called on this behavior, it says each individual instance was a mistake. But this is a repeated pattern. The “mistake” excuse does not hold water.

This is not responsible corporate behavior. This is the behavior of a company that believes it can say one thing publicly and do something completely different in daily practice.

Facebook’s fake “real names” policy