Saturday, November 1, 2014

Orderly Email

PHOENIX – You may have heard of the “quantified self” movement – the idea that you monitor your own vital signs such as weight or blood sugar, and then (ideally) adjust your behavior in order to stay healthy. Sometimes I half-joke that the primary metric that I monitor is my email inbox count: When it’s high, I’m too busy and stretched thin; when it’s low, I’m on top of things and able to concentrate on more important matters.

So imagine my delight upon meeting Dave Troy of the company 410labs in Moscow last month; he was on the “Geeks on a Plane” tour of the former Eastern bloc.

Actually based in Washington, DC, rather than Silicon Valley, Troy is a throwback to the old days when the Internet had just emerged from a US government project. His latest product, the cleverly named Mailstrom, seems almost retro in this age of social messaging: it helps you manage your email. But, unlike some new tools that guess – usually inaccurately – whose mail is important to me, Mailstrom does an excellent job not only of categorizing my mail, but also of helping me to get rid of it by applying my own intelligence – and willpower.

It helps me do things that I cannot do for myself when I’m trying to sift through my mail. It finds all the messages from a certain person, and then lets me handle them in a batch – delete, move, or even answer. Or it finds all the Mediapost newsletters about mobile marketing, so I can scan their headlines, and decide which to delete and which to save for later. And it rewards me if I delete them all by crossing that sender off the list (yes, I’m so easy to manipulate!). Or it can show me all the messages from, say, September 27. And so on.

Mailstrom does this in a sleek way, replete with numbers – selecting, counting, and sorting messages by date, subject, sender, social network, size, and so forth, and showing charts of the statistics. Mailstrom shows you how many messages of each particular type you have; it ranks the frequency of subject lines; and it lets you see how many messages you have received and how many you have handled each day.

Mailstrom does not actually do anything to the mail, but it does let you see the hidden patterns in your mail so that you can concentrate your cleanup efforts more effectively. It is amazing how important contextual information is to accomplishing tasks – especially the boring ones!

At the moment, after a few days in the WiFi-free countryside, I have 17 messages from Dave Farber, 15 from the Business Insider group (it catches some related senders), and 11 from The New York Times. I just got rid of all the Times headlines in one fell swoop, leaving me with only 1,356 to go!

The other result of using Mailstrom is that it makes me more conscious of the emails that I send. How can I avoid having my messages end up in the jumble of emails that gets handled en masse by someone else – abandoned, sent to an archive, or, even worse, deleted?

The first rule is to have a clear, unique subject line – “follow-up re BioWorks, deadline Nov. 3” or “Oct. 12, dinner with Juan and Alice” versus “introduction” or “Hi!” or “investment.” That leaves little chance of my messages getting lumped with someone else’s.

Even worse are subject lines showing that the person actually thought a little – but not enough: “From Tiger Haynes” – yes, it says that in the “from” field as well. Or, “For Esther Dyson.” Or, in February, “Re: Re: lunch November 15” [of last year].

Although I cannot change the subject lines of messages that I receive (something I could do with Eudora and which I still miss), I can and do change the subject lines of my replies – though sometimes I forget. Whenever something concerns a specific date, I change the subject line to, say, “13 December” and file the message under “December 2012” for easy sorting and retrieval.

Another lesson is to make sure that the primary point of your message lies in the first paragraph or two of the text. (Don’t rely on attached files that the recipient may not open, or on graphics that will not load if the recipient is not online. Busy people travel a lot and often check their email in trains, planes, and the WiFi-free countryside, where online access is limited.) So, to the extent possible, include details such as dates, deadlines, locations, and requests.

I (and many others) have the annoying habit of replying to vague messages with a clarifying question, kicking the can down the road. Many of my email threads consist of a long initial message, a short question from me, another long reply from the original sender, and an unsatisfactory experience for everyone.

Of course, if you follow the news, you know that kids nowadays are not using email; they communicate via social networks and text messages. The social networks, meanwhile, are starting to create their own email services, which, of course, assume that your circle of friends lives within that particular social network (Facebook, Google+, etc.).

For many people, the value of social networks is that you don't have to answer everything; it is a group environment. But it is also a closed environment. As social-first users start to engage in business, whether at work or for their own finances, purchases, and the like, they will have to keep track of their communications.

The typical email system is unstructured, but at least you can see it all – and some of the metadata (dates, size, sender). By contrast, most social-network email is not just unstructured, but almost actively obscure. Most messages have no subject line, and at best you can see a single message thread.

Perhaps those message services will change, or perhaps Google, Facebook, or Yahoo! (for example) will buy Mailstrom. Regardless, the visibility that Mailstrom affords is likely to be widespread by the time the current generation of kids develops complex, transaction-based lives. Or so I hope!

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  1. Commentedjames durante

    Technology is designed to make people stupid at a very high rate of speed.

    Consider the internal combustion automobile system with its monthly 9-11's worth of fatalities in the U.S. alone and its climate calamity; consider football and its concussion rate; consider the growth of social media and the decline of actual friendships; consider any tweet; consider the rise of e-mail and the decline of poetry; consider the number of engineers who cannot tell you anything about Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas or Hobbes let alone anything about Confucius, Lao Tzu or Buddha; consider television; consider advertising; consider fast food; consider the relative significance of orderly e-mail to politics or theatre or literature; consider what little is left intact from the original creation.

    Oh well, the image of the machine is God. As with any God, we must submit; we must conform.

  2. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    The obvious thing is that social networking e-mail has to do with the implicit "qualia-resources" of the future. Instead of networking people to people, or perhaps worse, people to an unresponsive corporation, it may be possible to link people to networks of qualified information;

    If this seems like a way of de-personalizing e-mail, consider that already people may be interacting with non-acquaintances, bots, or even many multiple one-way relationships like the typical news thread;

    The current approach has been largely a "culinary" access-of-information system, in which efforts are made to tailor the material for "some audience" even though it assumes that interaction must be technologized rather than linguisticized;

    It may be helpful instead, to provide computation upon qualities, and provide specialized environments which are not always networks, for the user to use. These don't have to be games per se, and certainly networking should function at a dynamic level (something not to be forgotten), but it may well be possible to serve specialized interests in a more structured way, a way that is also paradoxically open-ended; A program should be able to respond to variables like "structure: intellectual / inspirational / linguistic / constructive" or "system: open-ended / contingent / original / quantic" etc.; Even if corporations are using individual identity as an artificial structure for pyramid schemes (maybe I'm making this up, afterall, its not yet the virtual age), such a system or structure ought to have a right to a high degree of complexity, what in the 1800s would have been called the diabolical labyrinth, or the madman's machine: this was an active archetype;

    Then, what we need is more levels and degrees of "culling" or "cullination": ways in which identity, products, and desires can be scanned by a machine, and above all integrated with other forms of knowledge; There should be corporations that know how to permute identities, products and desires for the sake of the mere benefit of information.

    It ought to be possible to acquire a copyright if a program can be built with results consistent with a single pre-existing example, so long as the results are creative. This should extend even to existing very contemporary examples in literature. The result, with an adequate network and ersatz language composition program, would be an ability to treat the internet as a universal novel, which is at least one major step in the process of achieving a more perfect information society::