Decluttering Email and Website Accounts

How I’m “cleaning out” a domain I’ve had for 20+ years. I’m changing my email addresses, and also updating my hundreds of website accounts. To start it off, I combined all my address books / email contacts into one big list. Then, started to modify or delete website accounts to use the new email addresses. It’s a lot of work!

Part 1: Combining Your Many Email Address Books

If you have more than one address, and multiple address books, you can combine them, centralize, and then distribute it to your different devices. Unfortunately, it’s not easy.

In the end, I went from 500+ addresses down to under 100 contacts.

I am in the middle of changing my email addresses, and it’s requiring two gigantic tasks:

  • Fixing the contact list.
  • Changing or removing website accounts.

I had around 500 contacts, and a little less than 300 accounts. I’ll start with emails, and get to accounts.

500 contacts isn’t that many, but it feels like a lot to me.

My life is real simple, because I’m low capacity about people. I don’t talk to many people, and have only a few friends. I’m not the type of person to be in sales, or a politician.

I had these contacts from all over the place, and imported into different address books. It was, and is, a mess.

The technologies I had were:

  • Thunderbird and gContactSync, on two different computers
  • Google Contacts
  • Apple’s Mail Client, and iCloud Contacts, used sparingly
  • Android and Apple phones
  • Windows Contacts, used sparingly
  • Outlook’s contacts, which were the contacts in Skype

Consolidation

My main contacts were saved in Thunderbird Address Book(s), but over time, ended up in Google Contacts, across different addresses. I had to consolidate them.

Mainly, I used gContactSync to copy all the addresses into a single address book. It worked, but it was extremely slow, taking hours to sync.

I should have just exported and imported them as LDIF, vCard, or CSV files.

Merging

Once they were in Google Contacts, i wanted to deduplicate them.

Google Contacts has a good merge/de-duplicate tool, and that’s the main reason why I was moving contacts into Google.

However, the de-duplication can only be done on the manually entered list, called “Contacts”. All the imported addresses were in “Other Contacts”.

The “Other Contacts” are addresses that get picked up when you send an email, import addresses, or otherwise do something that creates an email address that Google spots. Addresses in Other Contacts are not synchronized with mobile devices.

So, I had to select all the contacts, and then press the “Add to Contacts” icon, shown below.

Once they were all in Contacts, I could use the “Duplicates” tool, and merge.

The Duplicates tool bases most of its AI on matching the first and last name, so it doesn’t find all the duplicates. I had dozens of contacts that needed manual merging.

To do a manual merge, check off two or more contacts, and press the “Merge” icon.

Downloading into Thunderbird for a Mass Mail

All my addresses were consolidated into landofziploc, my Gmail account.

I deleted the landofziploc shared address book from Thunderbird, and then re-established it. (This took a few tries to figure it out.)

I created a new Address Book, linked up to the landofziploc account, and then set it to Read Only, so it downloaded contacts, and didn’t upload them.

Set it to ignore contacts without email addresses (I didn’t do this, and had a bunch of bounces).

Syncing this way was fast – a few minutes.

Then, I loaded up the Mail Merge plugin for Thunderbird. This was a small scale mass-mailer.

Using it is straightforward, but requires some practice. Read the docs carefully, and learn to use it before doing it on more than a few test addresses.

I sent the messages out late, and it took many minutes.

Why Not Use A Mailing Service?

I didn’t use Mailchimp or another mass mailer because they all want “double opt in” addresses. I didn’t have permission to send spam to my list.

Processing Bounces

Bounces came in immediately, so I went through the messages, one by one, and removed addresses from the contacts.

There must have been around 200 bounces. That was nearly half the list.

There were a few more bounces in a few days, because some servers will try to deliver messages to other servers, and there’s a long timeout.

Moving Contacts into Other Contacts, or Deleting

At this point, all my addresses were in Contacts, so I’d have 200+ contacts being synced to all devices. I didn’t want that.

So I went through the list and, first, pruned addresses I knew I’d never contact.

Then, the ones that seemed like they might, or might not, be important, were moved into “Other Contacts”.

That helped reduce my contact list to less than 50 people.

As responses come in, I’ll include those people into the Contacts.

Distributing this Address Book

Google Contacts is widely supported. It’s not as widely supported as LDAP, but for my purposes, it’s fine.

(LDAP is an industry standard address book database protocol. It’s used by Microsoft Active Directory, OpenLDAP, and other software. Google Contacts is a proprietary product.)

The trick to managing diverse address books is centralization. Don’t use the 2-way sync, if possible.

  • In Thunderbird, gContactSync can be set to Read Only so it downloads contacts, but doesn’t upload them.
  • In Mac OS, when you go into the Accounts Control Panel, you can choose to sync contacts for a Google account.
  • In Windows you can add a Google account to the People application.
  • In Outlook.com, I don’t know what the options are. Microsoft doesn’t directly support using Google. Their infrastructure is all Exchange.

Managing Changes to Address Books

I will probably settle on using the “Exchange” model, which is to allow the users to save local contacts.

Copying contacts up to the central server is a manual process, more or less.

The central contact directory is a curated resource. That’s how quality is maintained.

Flagged as Spam? Probably

After sending the mass email, and waiting a week, I started to wonder. I probably got flagged for spamming, or identified as spam, and went into the spam folders.

Looking back, I should have throttled the pace of email delivery.

“Oh well…”

I can always re-mail using the cleaner list.

Dead Email Addresses?

I don’t know what industry standards are anymore, but I would see around 10% of the addresses in a list go bad each year. People just change addresses.

Since I’m working with many lists, odds are, many of the addresses were abandoned.

Part 2: Deleting or Revising Website Accounts

Unfortunately, if you didn’t log onto site using services like Google or Facebook, it’s going to be hard to remove and change accounts.

(If you did use those logins, you can go into the “applications” list, and just start deleting accounts.)

I use a password manager called LastPass that keeps track of website passwords. This way, I can use a long, random string as a password for every site.

I had around 400 accounts, so what I did was start off by trying to log into sites that were unlikely to exist any longer. If the last login was years ago, and the site was minor, it often would be gone.

If a site was gone, I could just delete the entry.

I would also look for trivial or silly sites that I didn’t want to be part of, anymore. For each of these, I’d try to find the “delete my account” button.

If I could delete the website’s account, I could delete my entry.

If I got an email from a site, I’d go into there, and change the email address. There was no logic to this, but I did it.

When I changed the address associated with the account, I also moved it to a new folder. That way, I wouldn’t try to change it again.

I have around 150 sites left to change. It’s getting harder to find the sites I want to delete.

Eventually, I’ll need to dig into the important websites, and update the addresses there.

How Fast Can I Change the Accounts?

It’s a slow and tedious process. I think I can do around 5 to 10 an hour.

I had 400 accounts. Finishing the task took 7 days.

Each editing session takes around 2 to 3 hours, and I just watch YouTube videos while I work.

At the end, there were 14 sites that were in my “To Do Later” list. These are just going to take a lot longer, for various reasons. I made this list because I needed to plow through the 80% of sites that were easy to fix.

How I Organized this Updating Task

The hard part is keeping track of what work’s been done to update an account.

I used the LastPass folders feature to group the accounts into folders.

For the most part, I never used the folders features, so they were all in the “(none)” folder.

As I updated each account, I’d assign it to a folder. The most common ones were Business, Social, and My Sites. As I got tired, picking was tougher.

I also created a folder called To Do Later.

These were trouble accounts that either had an email request out to delete the article, or to change the email address, or didn’t have any action taken that improved anything. I just wanted them out of the main batch of work.

So, in brief, I had three broad categories:

  • Accounts that hadn’t yet been touched. (the “none” folder)
  • Accounts that were updated. (all the various named folders)
  • Problem accounts. (the “To Do Later” folder)

Six days into this task of revising accounts, I have fourteen sites in the “To Do Later” list. Though that’s a lot, I think it’s a good tradeoff between completeness and speed. By throwing troublesome ones that will take a long time to fix into a “later” pile, the simpler sites can be done in minutes.

Switching to OAuth, Using Facebook or Google or Some Other Site

I’m starting to migrate some sites over from using email addresses for logins, to using Google for login. These logins are called OAuth tokens, and the most popular issuers are Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

(Technically, I think they are OpenID Connect and Facebook Login that creates the login. Both use OAuth2, but I’m just calling them OAuth.)

To switch, I need to first, delete the existing account.

Then, I choose the “Sign In With Google” button, and it’ll create a new account for me.

To manage website accounts, you go into Google, then into your account settings, then to the Security section, and over to the “Third Party Apps” box.

How websites handle OAuth users varies.

Some sites rely heavily on OAuth, like ManageFlitter, the tool to look at Twitter users and followers. Twitter OAuth access is required.

Other sites accept the OAuth data, but link it to an account the website manages. These sites may require that you create a password for your account, to do things like edit your settings.

Many sites have an account system, and then link an account to multiple external accounts, using OAuth to access the different account information.

So, OAuth isn’t always going to reduce login clutter, but it could help. You just don’t know until you try.

Execution of Moving to OAuth Accounts

This will happen after I update all the website accounts. It’s too hard to do that, as well as start using OAuth Accounts.

OAuth Account Segregation Strategy

I split up my online personae into two accounts: a business email, and a personal email. This applies to OAuth logins, because the email address is shared with the client website where you’re establishing an account. They may use that email address to contact you.

Of all the different OAuth-providing websites, only two are almost universally supported: Facebook and Google.

The other fairly well supported services are Twitter and Pinterest, depending on the website’s focus. Microsoft’s Live.com/Outlook is trailing them.

I put my business email onto hotmail.com. Outlook’s web mail is really nice.

I put my personal email onto Gmail, because I had an account there.

Then I associated my business email with Facebook. This may have been a mistake. I still use Facebook socially, but I also sell things on Marketplace, so, classifying it as a business site is a gray area.

Now, whenever I sign up to a site for business or work, I might use Facebook, if it’s available. I say “might” because I may prefer to use the email address by itself.

Whenever I sign up to other websites, I use Google, if it’s available.

One nice feature of Google’s OAuth login is that they add a feature that allows you to choose the specific Gmail account when you’re signing into a site. It’s more flexible than Facebook.

Hidden Information About Deleting Accounts

Most websites don’t have a “delete account” button.

On the other hand, most websites have a “terms and conditions” document that you’re supposed to read, but probably have never read.

In there, you often find an email address or contact method to request deletion.

I’ve followed these instructions several times, and had my account deleted. So it works, but it takes days!

Tackling the “To Do Later” and Sites to Exit

So, I now have two lists. The small list of “To Do Later”, and the vast list of existing accounts. They total 331 accounts.

I want to exit a bunch of these website accounts. Let’s say 50% of them. I’ve already exited around 70 sites. There’s another 160 to go.

Basically, these sites will all require time-consuming, hand editing, maybe emails, maybe phone calls. They’re difficult to do in parallel.

So they just need to be tackled individually, over the next few months.

It’s another habit to develop: the clean exit from a website.

Part 3: Unsubscribing from Mailing Lists, as a Habit

This should really be “part 0”. Several years ago, when I was a netadmin, I had access to peoples’ inboxes. Some people were subscribed to a ton of advertising email lists. These weren’t unsolicited spam, but opt-in lists.

When they quit to go to another job, I’d need to unsubscribe from all those lists. It was either that, or let the messages bounce.

Since they had vacation messages, and some had some forwarding, that was not an acceptable solution. Their advertising email would be stuck on the server, costing us some money, and making a big mess.

I manually unsubscribed them by clicking the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of the email messages.

I deleted old ads. You just use the search feature, and select all the old ads, and delete.

It worked well.

Ever since then, I’ve been pretty good about unsubscribing.

I’m just merciless. I unsub from almost everything.

Don’t worry about forming a habit. The emailers will do it for you:

Many do not send more than one mail a month.

Some are even less frequent.

So, when the message comes in, just unsubscribe.

If you’re on hundreds of lists, you’ll get practice daily.

Over time, the emails become less frequent, but you still unsubscribe.

(If you really want to retain the contact, you put them into your address book, and re-subscribe using your new address.)

Part 4: Inbox Zero? Not Quite

I’m at Inbox 20, Inbox 25, Inbox 1, and Inbox 30. More or less. Inbox 81.

It could be worse.

  • I have a couple things going on. One are a series of SEO spam from Neil Patel’s SEO operation that have a lot of really good information that I should internalize.
  • Another are recruiter emails for requests to apply for jobs. I should probably follow up on those, at least by contacting them.
  • I have some personal correspondence I haven’t followed up on. I need some “self-care” right now and have been in workaholic mode with this task.
  • And I have some requests to do some volunteer work.
  • I also have a few things to file away, like receipts.

It’s do-able.

Published by John

I can be reached at johnk@riceball.com.

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