Blocked-Soccer-ShotThe very first message on the Internet was “Lo.” The second was a list of 10,000 lawyer jokes. The first was an attempt to “Login” to a system that would help mankind be more productive than ever before. The second was the opposite, and consisted of jokes that would be booed off the stage at a Christmas cracker convention MC’ed by Carlos Mencia. You know that because you got it, too: it’s circled the Earth enough times to reverse the planet’s rotation, had more forwards than the entire NBA, and even now no-one has ever actually read the whole thing.

It’s rumored that the cure to cancer is hidden somewhere around the four-thousandth joke, but since you lose an IQ point for every line you read no-one’s ever gotten that far. The average victim zeroes out before a hundred, becoming an empty husk bereft of any intelligence or ability to contribute usefully to society — which is why they hit “forward” and sent the list to you instead.

There’s no proper response to an immense email forward, as it’s not yet possible to send a punch to the throat as an attachment, but there are strategies which can save you time. Each email excrescences destroys your concentration with the Inbox OCD of “gotta check new mail!,” so circumventing this social spam boosts your productivity. (As you’re well aware, batch processing your email is the most productive way to manage your inbox, but some lines of work and circumstances simply preclude this approach.)

1. Custom filters

We’re not talking about standard spam filters — your email already has those, and they’re the only reason you can ever get any real mail at all (3/4 of ALL email traffic is pure spam). You need craftier filters to block the more damaging spammers, a.k.a. “co-workers,” who think the best way to get the invoices out in time is to forward funny pictures. You can’t just block their address (or you’ll miss anything important they might accidentally send between Sudokii), but every stupid “Look at the cute cats!” they send proves why they shouldn’t be a colleague, they should be a subordinate. To a fry cook.

Gmail - Custom Filter

Gmail - Custom Filter

Services like Gmail now offer easy custom filter creation — just click on “Create a filter” (to the right of the search box at the top of the screen). You can set up your own rules and test each search before applying it. It’s a really good way to grab garbage because you can add rules for the “To” field as well as the “From.” Not every message from Manny in Accounting is spam, but you can bet he isn’t sending work files to his mother and “ <> ” as well — just set the “To:” filter to include any obviously non-work addresses they inflict their garbage on and you’ll be free forever.

Gmail - Custom Filter

Gmail - Custom Filter

And these filters aren’t risky “all-or-nothing” nukes. While it’s tempting to set every message to “Mark as spam,” “Delete,” and “Kneecap sender with a rusty pipe,” you can instead park them all in a temporary holding folder. At the third step of “Create a filter” you can choose “Apply the label.” Create a label for suspected time-wasters. You should also check the box “Mark as read” — that way, every time Manny sees another cute kitten jpg, your concentration won’t be shattered by all those OCD-inducing “New Mail” notifications.

2. Secondary email address

To project a friendly fool-fooling face, ask any junk-posters to dump their garbage on a secondary email. (Protip: Don’t use those exact words). Explain that you just can’t be seen enjoying their incredibly informative dictionary of blond jokes at work, but if they send it to your other email you’ll be able to read it in your own time. Try not to be offended when they believe you really have nothing better to do.

A second address is just good productivity advice — half the Internet demands an email to use, and none of that’s anything you want turning up in your official inbox. “Yes, boss, as you can see over my shoulder, I’ll finish the February report the very second I finish this urgent NFL Update!”

3. Politely ask them to stop

The first thing to remember about social spammers is that whatever they are — friend or relative or spouse — they are also a filthy spammer — and you’re certainly not the only target on their trash delivery route. Having to remove your email isn’t a massive offense for them; it’s one less address on a contact list that’s four pages long and they won’t even notice the next time they spew YouTube links forth on all and sundry. Nine times out of ten a polite request* will get you out, and you’ll never again have to curse, hit “Delete,” and try to remember what you were doing.

(*Note that in this case “request” will mean repeating it four or five times as these people spend 20 times the effort on mindless output than they ever would actually “reading” things. They certainly don’t actually read all the rubbish they’re sending you, or they wouldn’t have time to do it.)

This has the double-advantage of getting you out of discussing “funny clips” in public places. Because if sending your friends clips of every kitten you see is sad, opening a conversation with a real live person with “So, did you see that video I sent you today?” is sad enough to kill all the Care Bears and plunge the Earth into permanent shadow.

Image credit: abishome / iStockphoto