How Not to Clean Up Your Email Contacts

I have 897 people in my email contact list. I even know some of them.

Some of my contacts are friends; others are business colleagues or clients. Others are people who may have been important to me at some point for some reason but I’ll be damned if I can tell you why.

Some of my contacts aren’t people at all. They’re mailing list subscription addresses I keep around to prevent their important messages from going to spam so I can personally click “delete” thirty times every morning and throughout the day. Why automate when you can pretend you have some control over your life, right?

I even have some sworn enemies in my email contacts. They started out as friends, family, or neighbors, but maybe later I super-glued your incessantly barking dog to an oak tree even though you can’t prove it, and now I just keep your address around so I can relive my spitting rage every time I try fruitlessly to clean up my contact list before giving up in a fit of PTSD.

How It Got This Bad

I used to be quite the social maven back when the Internet was a toddler and Tripod was the best website building tool anyone knew of. I’m the guy who threw a party where you got wasted and made out with another person I barely know and the two of you ended up getting married and divorced to and from. You know, that party you don’t remember anything about and neither do I. That’s why you’re one of the 897 people on my contact list. Happy belated anniversary twelve times, by the way, and sorry it didn’t work out.

I used my huge network to market art shows, rock concerts, and book releases for an artist collective I used to contribute to. And how did I meet all those people and get them to come to events? By hobnobbing it like a politician all over town and gathering email addresses.

And then there was the decade between then and now, with untold other social circles accumulated from coast to American coast.

Now I have all these old contacts and I want them gone.

Baby, Take Me Back. I Was Wrong.

But maybe I don’t. This is where it gets dicey. Maybe some of those old contacts are genuine friends; it’s hard to tell the difference in these lonely times of mass media, Internet tubes, and cheese in a spray can. I don’t want to delete a long-lost contact just because they’re long and lost. Maybe I only met that random person once or twice six years ago, but who knows? They could be super awesome! We should definitely meet up for coffee and suffer horribly through our terrified smiles as we try to remember each other’s names thirty minutes into the conversation.

How do you decide who your real friends are? Is it a function of how good they make you feel? How much money they represent to you? How many genes you share with them? If they smell good?

What’s your tribe, man? And how do you clean up your contact list? Do you go through it one entry at a time and wrack your brain to remember who they are? Maybe divide them into “Definitely Know Them”, “Definitely Might Know Them”, “Probably Not”, “I Always Did Like the Name Angela”, and start eliminating from there?

Do you stress about burning bridges that will likely never be crossed anyway? I do.

Science to the Rescue?

I worry about these things. So I consult Science. For example, Science’s “Dunbar’s Number” tells me that my brain should theoretically only be able to make sense of 150 people in my social world. The rest can be discarded. Right?

But no. It’s not that stinking easy. With the advent of the Internet, social media, and LOLCats, the average personal network size has grown to 250, 634, or 1200, depending on which Scientist you ask. What’s that say about how meaningful our relationships actually are? And shouldn’t I automatically know who is important to me? No, because apparently I am merely a shallow and disconnected specimen in the Zuckerbergian Meat Freezer formerly known as Earth.

I don’t know. Just hit delete and see what happens, I tell myself.

But what if, my huge and impressive amygdala nags. What if you delete someone destined to become your wife? What if that person you so blithely erased from your contacts really is the King of Nigeria and does want you pay you $2.5 million to run over to the Western Union for a sec? What if you’re high on ditch weed and don’t know what you’re doing?

Apparently the size of your amygdala, which is the center of fear and loathing in the brain, is correlated to the number of online contacts you have. So basically the more contacts you have, the more irrationally afraid of losing them you are, and/or vice versa. More contacts, growls the amygdala, taking over all of your higher brain functions. Must have more contacts. I figure the amygdala looks like something out of Akira at this point.


I’ve just explained why my email contact list makes me feel like I have spiders and hot helium inside of my chest and skull. I haven’t even mentioned my social media profiles, phone contact lists or, ahem, the people I actually know outside of this technological jungle I chose to colonize.

What a mess. I can’t make any sense of it. Meanwhile I still have 897 email contacts. Do you feel my pain? Do you have any insights? Feel free to comment. Hell, email me about it. I hope we end up the best of friends.

– Will Conley is a writer and Web presence planner who specializes in making other people’s lives easier. Wish him luck on his own.

Sources and recommended reading:

3 thoughts on “How Not to Clean Up Your Email Contacts”

    1. Ha, thanks man. I’m glad we’re randomly connected here in cyberspace. Your enthusiasm for teaching is a blast to see. Maybe in a decade we’ll be living in different universes, but for now, es bueno.

  1. Reblogged this on The Book of Hormones and commented:
    Brilliant writing, brilliant writer.

    Moi? Hell no, I do not stress about burning bridges. I burn bridges all the time. If I do not wear something in a couple of months, I throw it away. If I do not hear from someone in a couple of months, I push delete button. Piece of cake. Those people who I am supposed to meet in another time, in another place, in another context, will return to my life, eventually. Others? Deleted and gone for good. I love pushing delete, and so many Facebook friends are figuratively speaking “pushing daisies” at the moment. I can live with it… Hundreds of “friends” means that I am not able to spend quality time with them. I like to be able to give quality time to those I wish to interact with regularly. Those people who are able to talk big talk, instead of small talk, are rare in my book anyway. Like all the other cave women out there, I hate small talk, too. Too many contacts means way too much small talk. Yuk.

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