In Canada, the U.K., and a handful of other countries, the day after Christmas is known as "Boxing Day." Historically, it's a day when workers and servants are given gifts by their employers, as thanks for the hard work they've done that year.
In the U.S., though, we don't have a similar way to keep the giving spirit going after the last Christmas presents have been opened. The day after Christmas is just a big, blank day of lounging around, eating leftovers and cleaning up stray bits of wrapping paper. So we're proposing something different this year: an entirely new holiday on December 26th, devoted to the kindest digital-age gift of all. It's called "Inboxing Day."
Inboxing Day is a day when tech-savvy e-mail users can help their less-skilled loved ones improve their digital lives. Uncle Todd still using his old Earthlink.net account? Mom writing down her passwords on Post-It notes? Take an hour and help them fix those problems.
There are a few ways to observe Inboxing Day. Here they are, in order from least to most intense.
Level 1: Empty inboxes and change passwords. Practicing good data hygiene is important, and if your loved ones haven't changed their e-mail passwords in a while, now's a good time to remind them. (While you're at it, consider helping them install a password manager, like Dashlane or 1Password, to keep track of all their passwords.)
To empty an inbox, create a folder called "Important," and have the person you're helping move all of his truly important, unattended-to e-mails into it. (Or better yet, move unfinished tasks onto a to-do list app – I use Clear, but there are dozens of good alternatives you could help set up.) Next, select all the messages remaining in the inbox, and clear them out. If they're using Outlook, Apple Mail, or a similar program, you may want to move these files into a new folder called "Old Mail," since deleting them will mean they're gone forever. On Gmail, just archive everything – the old messages will still be searchable, and your loved one can still view them under "All Mail."
If your loved one has more than 50 threads in her Gmail inbox, you'll need to use a workaround to archive them all at once. First, search the inbox for "in:inbox," then click the tiny arrow inside the search bar and select "Create filter with this search." Gmail will ask you to confirm that you want to create this filter; hit "OK," and then check the boxes beside "Skip the Inbox (Archive it)" and "Also apply filter to X matching conversations." Hit "Create filter," and the entire contents of the inbox will vanish. (You'll then want to go into your settings and delete the filter, so new messages will still appear in their inbox.)
Level 2: Upgrade your family and friends to Gmail. If your loved ones are still using AOL, Earthlink, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, or another last-century e-mail provider, help them set up a Gmail account, while moving all of their contacts and important e-mails over and setting up auto-forwarding from the old account to the new one. The change might be jarring, especially for older users accustomed to their existing system, but they'll thank you for introducing them to Gmail's superior interface and near-limitless storage. (While you're at it, install the Gmail app on your family's smartphones, and teach them about tabbed inboxes, Google Hangouts, Google Docs, and other Google-specific features. You can use Gmail's own guide to migrating from another e-mail system, or search for migration tips from specific services.)
Don't forget to help your loved ones set up two-factor authentication – it's the easiest way to prevent unauthorized access to their inboxes. And if they use a calendar app, set up a monthly recurring appointment that will remind them to change their passwords.
Level 3: Delete their old mail. (Not archive – delete.) This is a more dramatic step, not for the faint of heart. But if the Sony Pictures hack and the iCloud hack of 2014 have taught us anything, it's that old e-mails and photos are time bombs waiting to go off. If your kin can't mass-delete his or her e-mails permanently, you can help export them to an archive file, and then store that archive on a password-protected external drive while you delete them from the e-mail provider's servers. (Gmail has its own export tool, located here.)
Storing old e-mails offline isn't as secure as deleting them altogether – and it will create some annoyances when your aunt wants to search for an old file or message – but it makes her much less susceptible to a hack.
Level 4: Move them to a "smart mailbox" service like Acompli or Google's Inbox. If your loved one is a power e-mailer, they may want to try a smart mailbox app. Acompli, which was acquired by Microsoft this year, has a "focused inbox" feature that brings important e-mails higher up in your inbox, while demoting those you probably don't care about. You can also mark e-mails you don't need to attend to right away, and schedule them to come back at a later time. Google Inbox has many of the same features as Acompli, but also integrates seamlessly with your Gmail account. If Dad gets hundreds of e-mails a day, he'll love the way Inbox allows him to prioritize, organize, and schedule tasks right inside the app.
Level 5: Encrypt their inboxes. If 2014 was the year of the hack, 2015 might be the year we finally start getting serious about e-mail security. To lock your loved one's inbox down, you'll want to set up encryption.
There are a few ways to do this. You could sign Mom up for a Hushmail account, which offers built-in encryption and is currently offering a holiday special subscription for $35 a year. You could install Mailvelope, a free OpenPGP browser extension that integrates with Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and other services. Or you could encourage her ditch e-mail altogether, and use an app like Confide or Cyber Dust to send messages to her contacts.
Most encryption processes still aren't easy for novices to use, so your family may not be PGP-ready yet. But the good news is that unless they regularly exchange state secrets or carry out illegal transactions, their e-mail inboxes probably don't need to be fully encrypted. Just upgrading them to an e-mail system with two-factor authentication and reminding them to change their passwords regularly will make them many times safer.
Even if you can only celebrate Inboxing Day by completing one or two of these steps, you've done a good deed. And, after you're finished setting up other people's inboxes, you might want to treat yourself to an e-mail upgrade, too. As with Christmas, it's better to give than receive on Inboxing Day. But receiving is still pretty great.