Shortmail wants to reduce email overload by keeping messages short

Most of us are drowning in email. Could a solution be to impose a Twitter-like character limit on emails? Baltimore, MD-based 410Labs thinks so; its Shortmail service enforces brevity by limiting messages to 500 characters or less.

Getting started with Shortmail is simple; you need to sign in with your Twitter account, which then forms your Shortmail email address (my Twitter handle is spiky_simon, so my Shortmail address is spiky_simon <at>, for example) Once signed in, you’ll be taken to your inbox. The Shortmail web interface is pretty easy to use, but the service works with POP3 and IMAP so you can also use it with your regular email client.

Any outgoing messages sent from your Shortmail account have a footer attached that says “This is Shortmail. Please reply in less than 500 characters; about 5 sentences.” Anyone trying to reply with a message that’s longer than 500 characters will be sent an email telling them that their email is too long with a link that allows them to edit their email to get it under the limit.

Apart from limiting the length of emails, Shortmail also has the ability to make conversations public. Prior to sending an email you can check the “Public” checkbox; the email and any replies will then become available online, complete with a Twitter-friendly short URL so you can share the conversation with others (Shortmail warns the people you email that the conversation will be posted online). This public conversations feature could be useful for sharing discussions with your team, for example.

Shortmail certainly works to keep emails snappy, but while I’d love to find a service that reduces my email overload, I’m not convinced that Shortmail’s approach is the right answer for me. While shorter, more concise emails obviously take less time to process, I find it’s the volume of emails that I receive that causes most of my email overload, not each email’s length. If, as noted in this Shortmail blog post, 99 percent of business communications already fits within the 500 character limit, is there much of a reason to use it? I think it’s likely that Shortmail will annoy people on those occasions when they do need to send me a longer message; spending time editing an email or splitting it up to meet the limit would be pretty time-consuming. Also, any incoming attachments are simply stripped from the message with no warning to the sender, which I think could lead to miscommunication (“Did you see the doc I sent you last week?”).

What do you think? Could Shortmail’s character limits solve email overload problem?