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Don’t tell me

Something that has always bugged me about spam filters is their tendency to announce, quite proudly, just how many spam emails they’ve captured. It serves a very useful purpose, of course, since people will doubtless want to check their filters every now and then to ensure nothing was falsely identified as spam, but I’ve always found it distracting. Like a small child yelling “Daddy, Daddy, lookit what I found!”, it just begs me to open it, inspect it, and empty it. Every time I get new mail. It reminds me of a bit from Joel Spolsky’s User Interface Design for Programmers:

There was one problem [with the Macintosh trash metaphor]. After a few releases, the Mac designers went a little too far and decided that a trash can with something in it should look “stuffed,” so when you drag something in there, you get a full trash can instead of an empty trash can. The trouble is that neat freaks were distracted by the full trash can. It looks messy. When they wanted to clean up, they would empty the trash. Over time, many people got in the habit of dragging things to the trash can and then mechanically emptying the trash so that the trash can wouldn’t look messy, thus defeating its original purpose: to provide a way to get things back!

Yes, I’m one of those neat freaks and I hate looking at a full trash can. Even if it has 30KB of files in it, it just looks so damn full! Maybe it’s time the trash became a little more dynamic: give it a few dozen levels of fullness, each representing some percentage of the disk’s capacity occupied by trashed files, but I digress. If we’re talking Junk instead of Trash, doesn’t a huge number of “unread” junk emails strike you as odd? I’m pretty sure I don’t ever intend to read them.

A spam filter that announces the arrival of new spam is only marginally better than no spam filter at all. Spam is something I don’t want to deal with: period. But now instead of hitting Delete once for every incoming spam email, I’m made to switch to the spam folder, scroll through the list for potential false positives, and hit Erase Junk Mail to get the visible spam count back to zero. Every time I get new mail. The Junk folder, by highlighting its contents so proudly, sets off the neat freak alarm. And it’s a loud alarm. If you ever meet my mother, you’ll understand. And god help you.

So I’m neurotic, it’s an annoyance. In an effort to curb this Junk anxiety, I’ve opted for stealthy spam filtering by configuring Mail to mark all junk as read on arrival. Now the spam can pile up for days, weeks, I pay it no mind. Whenever the fancy takes me (not often), I’ll take a peek to make absolutely sure there are no false positives. But otherwise, who cares? If it’s not telling me about all the spam it trapped I can just go back to living the life I had before spam became an issue: a simple, carefree existence of full-fat milk, high-carb beer, and leaping before I look.

The rule? Essentially: If message is junk, mark as unread. Consult the “Rules” or “Filters” pane of your email client’s preferences for details.

Now, to be perfectly fair, it’s only natural that the Junk folder should display its unread count by default; I’m not arguing that spam filters should be black holes. A lot of people would be worse off without some indicator of trapped spam, since they’d never be reminded to look for false positives and may (on mission-critical mail accounts) be completely screwed by a lost email. Likewise, some people would never empty their trash if it didn’t look full, and bad things would happen. Disks would get over-full with the bloat of a thousand deleted podcasts. But me, I just don’t wanna know. I’ll look eventually, but constant reminders just make me look more often than I need to. I found my happy medium with a simple rule. You can too.