Pondering “Email Conservation” After Hitting Gmail’s Storage Limit

Back in April, I became one of the rare people to run out of Gmail space. Due to a glitch with Google, I was also unable to purchase more space for several weeks. As a result, I became hyperaware of how much email space gets eaten up each day routinely. Newsletters, product offers, Facebook and Twitter notifications, that person you don’t know who emails you a 7MB file. It adds up. And Gmail’s supposedly “endless” space might not be keeping pace.

None of this is a crisis for the vast majority of people out there. You rarely hear people talking about running out of Gmail space. Those like myself who rely on email so much for business work as to run out of space probably wouldn’t think twice about buying more. I certainly would have done so, if I could have, at the time.

Still, I feel like all this crud going into our email boxes is wasteful. That in the era of cheap disk space and fast bandwidth, we don’t think twice about what we send, what we receive. But all that stuff is consuming disk space, server space, energy. Is there a case for email conservation?

Maybe. People far more knowledgeable than I might perhaps weigh in, and I’d love to hear from them. To kick things off, I’ll serve as a case study. Here’s how I’ve grappled with trying to stay under my Gmail quota over the past few weeks.

Out Of Space!

It was on April 30 of this year that my Gmail account started sending out this message to people who emailed me:

The email account that you tried to reach is over quota.

It surprised me. In the back of my mind, I remembered Google saying something like you’d never run out of space in Gmail. The percentage of my quota used, shown at the bottom of any page in Gmail, had been stuck on 97% for as long as I could remember. I kind of thought that was part of the gimmick — that somehow, Google kept upping the quota in each individual account to always keep it above water. Not so. Despite the promises on the Gmail home page, I needed to delete mail in order to have space for more.

The Gmail Infinity Space Promise

When Gmail launched on April 1, 2004 (yes, it was on an April Fool’s Day), the suggestions of unlimited storage were there at the beginning. From the press release:

Unlike other free webmail services, Gmail is built on the idea that users should never have to file or delete a message, or struggle to find an email they’ve sent or received….

Storage: Google believes people should be able to hold onto their mail forever. That’s why Gmail comes with 1,000 megabytes (1 gigabyte) of free storage – more than 100 times what most other free webmail services offer.

A year later, Google rolled out the “Infinity+1” storage promise, giving everyone an extra 1GB of space (taking the total to 2GB at the time) and promising to keep increasing this.

By October 2007, Google increased the amount of free storage space it was providing, writing on the Gmail blog:

In April 2005, we started increasing Gmail storage as part of our “Infinity+1” storage plan. At that time, we realized we’d never reach infinity, but we promised to keep giving Gmail users more space as we were able. That said, a few of you are using Gmail so much that you’re running out of space, so to make good on our promise, today we’re announcing we are speeding up our counter and giving out more free storage.

And, just in case you are like my friend Miriam, whose sister sends minute to minute photo updates of her kids in RAW format, then we still have a paid storage program where you can get your fix, and we’re giving you more space than before for the same price.

By the way, businesses, schools and organizations using Google Apps to get Gmail on their own custom addresses (like Google does for our @google.com accounts) will get a storage boost in the coming days, too. Standard and Education Edition storage (now at 2GB) will begin matching Gmail’s counter, and Premier Edition users get a whopping 25 GB (up from 10 GB).

As you can see, at that point, Google had also offered paid storage options. I thought that was great, because some people might need more than even the huge amount Google was providing for free. But “Infinity+1” implies that buying space shouldn’t be needed. And if you go to the Gmail home page today, you’ll see this message:

Lots of space
Over 7369.392583 megabytes (and counting) of free storage so you’ll never need to delete another message.

The number is constantly counting up (more on this in a bit). The claim is pretty straight-forward. You’ll never need to delete anything. And yet, that’s exactly what I needed to do. Certainly some others have to do the same. So that claim ought to go.

How Much Do They Give You? Not Much!

It’s also easy to assume, with that number constantly ticking up on the Gmail home page, that tons of extra space is constantly being allocated to your account. In reality, it’s about 1MB every three days (Google Operating System said 0.33MB per day back in 2007, and that still seems to be the case). Those in Gmail are constantly being increased. Those using Gmail through Google Apps get a boost to match Gmail whenever there’s a 10MB gap between the two services, it seems. Here’s a chart illustrating this, the maximum space offered by both versions of Gmail over the past few weeks:

Gmail & Google Apps Storage Over Time

For some people, that may seem like plenty. But as I was forced to stay under my quota, I discovered the daily increase in space wasn’t that much. Moreover, while I may have hit my quota this year because of how long I’ve had a Gmail account, it’s possible that if space isn’t increased more than now, many more might hit theirs in years to come.

The Fight To Stay Tight

Let me share a bit more about my situation, then I’ll go more into my observation about how much email junk may be “wasting” space for everyone.

I’m fairly unique in having had a Gmail account since the day it launched. I used that account as a backup to my regular email account, sending a copy of anything I received to it. Last year, I merged all that mail into a Gmail account that runs using my own domain name as part of the Google Apps program. When I was done, I’d pretty much stuffed my main Gmail / Google Apps account full. That’s the account that ran out of space this year.

My immediate thought was to upgrade and add more storage. However, I couldn’t. When I tried, I got a “We are unable to process your request” message from Google. This continued for about two or three weeks, a bug for a small number of users, to my understanding, that Google eventually solved.

I had no choice to conserve space. My first reaction was to sort my mail by size, so that I could find any email with big PowerPoint files or other large attachments. However, Gmail has no sort by size feature. It’s an oversight that’s long due to end. Yes, the Mail Goggles feature to keep you from drunk emailing is funny. But a sort by size feature has been standard in my Outlook email program for as long as I can remember and Pegasus Mail before that. Gmail lacks this? Want to lobby for it? Join this thread at Google Groups.

How about searching for files with attachments, specifically anything with PPT (PowerPoint) files. Sure, I did that. Unfortunately, it still didn’t sort them by size. It was a painful, time consuming process to try and free space up this way.

Another reaction was to search for any email not in English. Unless you want to converse with me in really, really bad German, English is all I speak. Virtually anything in my inbox not in English is spam that’s gotten through the filters in some way. I don’t need it. I blogged about wanting a feature like this back in 2006. It still doesn’t exist.

Among other things, I searched for any Twitter notifications that I’d received. I had thousands of these. Wiping these out saved much more space than I was expecting. That got me thinking about all the other “useless” mail I’ve got stored from over the years, things I really don’t need to save. How much do they consume?

The Useless Mail

While I can pay for more space and probably will soon, I’ve kept to a free account over the past few weeks so that I could study the situation more. Every few days, I’ve looked at my mail to understand how much has come in, what I could free up and figure if I’m staying ahead of the space I’ve been given or falling behind.

For example, let’s take today. When I logged in, my account had used 7,240 MB of space used, out of a total 7,365 MB allowed — 98% of it. That means since I last went in, I’d picked up 74MB in new email.

74MB! In that same period, Gmail had given me 4MB of new space — just 5% of what I’d gained. So much for infinity plus one.

OK, I’m just unusual, right? Maybe, but maybe not so much. To clear space, here’s what I did:

  • Killed about 300 Twitter & FriendFeed notifications (message about people following me or taking my feed). That freed 4MB of space.
  • Cleared 2,250 spam messages, freeing up 45MB of space.
  • Deleted 100 email reports from Google Analytics for five different web sites I watch going back to mid-July, freeing 8MB of space.

Doing these things still left me using 20MB of space more than I was on Sept. 9, a net loss versus the 4MB of space Google had given me in that same time period.

Every few days, I’ve gone through this type of routine, sometimes aggressively. Here are a few more stats to illustrate some of the “dumb” or “useless” email, as I call it, that has taken up space:

  • Facebook/Twitter/FriendFeed/LinkedIn Notifications: Virtually none of these are useful a few days after they’re received. Searching for common words would often find hundred of these messages over the years the first time I’d look. Even after clearing them out, I’d find plenty more new ones had been received. Very roughly, 100 of these can equal about 1MB of space.
  • WordPress Backups: I watch over two blogs on WordPress and each week get emailed a backup. Handy! But two weeks worth of these for me equaled 7MB of space. Once a new one comes in, I really don’t need the old one — much less one from weeks ago. They just eat space, but because I have (or thought I had) so much space, I didn’t think much about receiving them.
  • Google Analytics Reports: Getting regular reports by email are awesome, but as noted above, they take up space. Since I have access to Google Analytics itself, I really don’t need these in the long term.
  • Business Newsletters: Killing 150 “Inside Apple” newsletters since 2005 saved 4MB of space. Wiping out 200 Amazon Store newsletters saved 10MB of space. Build-A-Bear has sent me 110 offer emails since 2007. Major League Baseball has sent me 80 in the same period. I had 100 notifications that my credit card statement was ready from my credit card company going back to 2006. 30 message from Tickets Now back to March of this year. I could go on, and some of these counts are low (because the initial count Gmail returns for a search often rises as you go to the second page). The bottom line is virtually none of this email is useful to me in the long-term, yet it takes up more space than you’d imagine.
  • Inbox Busters: A PR person sent me a pitch with a 1MB attachment, worth 3 days of “new” space from Gmail. No warning, and not relevant to what I cover. The same person sent me a 0.5MB logo attachment a few weeks before. Someone sent me a bug report with a 7MB screenshot attached. 7MB! Someone I don’t know, who somehow put me on some email list I’m not interested in, which sent me a 4.5MB image. Someone pitching to speak at a conference sent me a 7MB presentation with their email. Wipe out all “dumb” email you want — things like these dwarf those savings.

What To Do?

Like I said, this isn’t a crisis for most people. I also know I’m an usual case. But I think things will get worse for more people over time, largely because we just don’t think much about what we email.

In the bad old days of dial-up, you’d never send someone a 1MB file out of the blue. Just shoving it down the pipes would take forever. Now we don’t think twice. We certainly don’t think that this file is eating up 3 days worth of Gmail quota.

Email messages themselves have increased in size, as HTML email has become more common. All those business emails can add up.

Notifications that are so handy can get out of control. They’re like hundreds of little cuts to your quota. They serve no use in the long term, but they sure consume space collectively.

I know I can just pay to get more email on Google. Yahoo says it has unlimited email, announced in 2007, so I could move over there, if I really wanted to be cheap.

But it’s not about being cheap. It’s just more amazement, I guess, at how when you open things up with seemingly no limits, suddenly conservation gets lost. Maybe there’s no reason for email conservation. Perhaps storage will keep getting cheaper, and none of this will matter especially versus the time it takes to conserve. But it still nags at me. I’m just that way, I guess.

Gmail Suggestions

Meanwhile for Google, some suggestions:

Don’t say you’ll never need to delete on the Gmail home page, since that’s clearly not true. Modify it, advertise it accurately.

Sort By Size. It’s overdue. Offer it now.

Filter By Language. Why are we still waiting for this?

Consider an option that might understand all those “dumb” emails that we get, those special offers from stores, those Twitter notifications, pingback notifications and so on. Maybe sense when we have a lot of these from one particular source and ask us if we want to delete them.

Related, if we unsubscribe using your new auto-unsubscribe feature, perhaps search for related emails when we do this and ask if we want them deleted. And let us unsubscribe without having to use the spam button to do this. That makes no sense at all.

Finally, don’t get me wrong. I love Gmail. It’s a great service, and I’m very happy with it. It’s just through an accident of being unable to upgrade, I got a close-up view of how much storage all those emails I get consume.