motd.co: Overwhelmed: The Mail Proxy for the Rest of Us

After reading this weekend about LinkedIn’s stunning new software innovation “Intro”, I was inspired to use similar technology to solve a problem I have with email: I keep getting it. Every day, more email shows up in my email account. Since life is meaningless and nothing matters, this is a problem for me— why bother? Spending my time responding to anyone’s email is essentially a death march, and by putting an email in THEIR inbox it’s sentencing them to a grueling time spent reading any terrible thoughts I can somehow manage to salvage from my brain and then writing me another response? And then we just keep doing that back and forth forever, until one of us dies? That’s no good. No good at all.

That’s why I’m ready to introduce my own email proxy service, called Overwhelmed. What does it do? It sits between you and your email server and makes sure that no email is ever delivered to your iPhone ever again.

How does it work? My key insight was this: I cannot extend the mail client, and just like me you’re probably not going to be able to stop yourself from opening it thanks to years of gross habit-forming and the general sense that something might be happening that requires your “expert knowledge”. One way to fix this is to just delete all email from your email server, but that would make it impossible to ever read or reply to email, and just last week I got an email telling me I could get my hands on a huge Amount Deal, so let’s assume that we want to be able to check our email on our computers sometime.

overwhelmed-2

Instead, we can modify the messages by using a proxy server. And by modify, I mean “not forward.”

Normally your device connects directly to the servers of your email provider (Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, etc.), but we can configure the device to connect to the Overwhelmed proxy server instead.

overwhelmed-1

The Overwhelmed proxy server theoretically speaks the IMAP protocol just like an email provider, but it doesn’t store messages itself. In fact, it doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t actually exist as a piece of software. It’s just a domain name that I own— for now!— and may or may not have hooked up to any actual DNS setup.

Once you’ve got Overwhelmed set up, I promise I will never send you your email. Even just to send it unaltered would require either writing or installing some sort of software, and let’s face it— those both involve a LOT of work that I’d just rather not do.

Your iOS Mail app may continuously give you error messages while you’re using Overwhelmed. That’s how you know it’s working! If you don’t get any error messages, you should definitely try using an incorrect password or maybe misspelling your username.

When I first built Overwhelmed, people thought that I was crazy — writing a system to stop receiving email by effectively giving someone else access to it if they decided they wanted it! But it turned out to be a great success, and many others have since followed my footsteps and written browser extensions that reduce their access to their data.

This post has only scratched the surface of the interesting challenges I have overcome while building Overwhelmed. In follow-up posts I will talk about some of my CSS techniques, testing and monitoring tools, things I do to achieve high performance and high reliability, and more. In the meantime, let me know what you think!