Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, December 7, 2009

email and other gluts

Nick Bilton’s “10 Proposals for Fixing the E-mail Glut” is mostly silly — limit emails to 140 characters? — but has one legitimately interesting idea:

Clay Shirky, author of the book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,” believes that “we don’t have information overload; we have filter failure.” I completely agree with this, but creating filters can become a chore too. My solution would add a single-click button called Auto Filter. Once pressed, it would do its best to analyze the message and create a new filter, and then file future messages into this new category.

Presumably the filters would only need to be new when you first started using the feature: after a short time the app would start adding new messages to already existing filters. (Otherwise you’d have a new filter for every message.) Another possibility would be to set up some filters manually at the beginning, and ask the app to try to fit new messages into one of the existing filters, only creating a new one if it can’t find any plausible matches.

This is one step beyond Gmail’s already excellent filtering system, which works only on the basis of criteria you explicitly set up. (The “smart folders” used in Mac OS X’s Mail application, and elsewhere in the system, are exactly the same thing: saved searches.) All that said, this is the kind of thing that should only be used by people who get email in enormous volume, because it’s a recipe for shunting messages into folders that you never look at.

I expect Gmail to offer something like this before too long. A number of desktop apps do this kind of automatic sorting already: my “everything Bucket,” Together offers the option to auto-tag new files based on existing tags — though in my experience it doesn't do this very well — and many people are devoted to DEVONthink because of its “Artificial Intelligence,” that is, its ability to sort and auto-classify large numbers of documents. I think addressing “filter failure” will be a major goal of many kinds of software in the coming years, and I expect Google to lead the way in this endeavor.

One more thing: How long will people be worrying about an “email glut”? Already many people use email only for business purposes, having redirected their personal communications to Facebook and Twitter. My teenage son, for instance, gets and sends absolutely zero personal emails. When email is a place for business and business only, some important filtering has been done.


  • My greatest pet peeve with email usage today is the prevalence of top posting. This is the practice of replying to emails by composing an entire message above the original, rather than placing brief replies beneath the relevant portions of the quoted message. Breaking this habit would do far more to simplify email communication than imposing an arbitrary 140 character limit.

    If one is invited to a meeting, it's most efficient to type a simple "Yes, I'll be there" beneath the original question. But many email users (out of politeness) feel compelled to write a full reply above the original message. Of course, one needs a good text editor to quote efficiently. Newsgroups and mailing lists often provide a good example of efficient quoting.

  • I'm a passionate advocate for bottom-posting — or rather, as I like to call it, "selective-responsive posting" — but I think we lost that battle a long time ago. No matter how good an example I set for others, only rarely do I get reciprocation.

  • I used to do selective-response posting. I think the domination of email threading has made it kind of obsolete, though. (The default in Gmail is a top post with the entire previous thread below.) It's easy enough to simply write a brief note in reply, just responding to what needs responding to and using just a few words if necessary to make sure the other person knows what you're talking about.

  • PS. That article was indeed silly. Disappointingly so. I'd like to hear some good suggestions for fixing the email glut. Though I've managed to keep my inbox below 5 or 10 messages and often at 0 for the last several weeks. Maybe I'll be able to keep it up.

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