David Heinemeier Hansson

April 23, 2021

HEY will soon let you recycle your emails

Gmail taught us to save every email forever so they'd have an endless data trove to mine for purchases, behaviors, and connections. Endless fields for machine learning to roam wild, sowed by the anxiety of WHAT IF I NEED IT ONE DAY.

But saving every email you've ever gotten does not make any sense. Neither ecologically, practically, or mentally. Why are you saving newsletters from three years ago? Or notifications from even last month? And do you really want a digital trail of everything you've ever written anyone? I don't think most people do, but I also don't think they've thought about it too hard.

Storing all those emails that are only ever going to be read again by machines is something we should stop doing. There are entire data centers dedicated to storing all this crap forever. Soaking up resources to build, maintain, and power. Why?

It was Earth Day yesterday. And I wish we'd been able to get this feature ready for its celebration, but we didn't think about it until the day before, so the next best thing was a preview instead of a launch: HEY will now come with a recycling center for emails. This is just v1, and I can imagine taking this much further, but it's a great start.

hey recycling center.jpeg


In the HEY Recycling Center, you'll be able to turn on recycling for The Feed as the most obvious improvement. Newsletters are email hogs as it is. Full of HTML markup to support every all sorts of ancient email clients. They're usually just skimmed once, if at all, so just end up sitting there, taking up space on disk, in search results, in everywhere, for no good reason. Easiest recycling win ever.

But you'll also be able to turn on recycling for any individual sender or domain. Most people get the bulk of their emails from a handful of senders. For me, the most egregious one is GitHub. Some days I get well over a hundred notification emails from GitHub, relating to programming work I'm doing at Basecamp, Ruby on Rails, or Hotwire. I like getting them, I skim them quickly, but why on earth would I keep them until the end of time? So GitHub will go on the most aggressive recycling schedule.

I can imagine doing the same with anyone I'm emailing with where I would have turned on Signal's Disappearing Messages feature if we were texting. Which is now actually the default for almost every conversation I have on there. There's such liberation in knowing that not everything you ever said is going to live in a hoard of data forever. It's a lightness that's hard to articulate.

Corporate email systems have long had crude recycling options under the name of retention policies. Those policies usually dictate that every email from every sender get erased after a certain time, unless you specifically pluck them out for retention. After having been subject to an invasive subpoena before, I can completely recognize the appeal of doing that. But most people don't need to worry about lawsuits, and HEY isn't trying to appeal to some corporate compliance department, so for us the recycling appeal is broader and closer and motivates being more specific.

We really all do need to think about what we can do, big and small, to squander fewer resources. Recycling your emails isn't going to turn any big tides, but if it's easy to do, helps you anyway, why wouldn't you?