Sunday, September 12, 2010

Gmail Wants to Prioritize My Mail?

Too much email? Google wants to start prioritizing our Gmail for us.
As a person who gets far more email than I can reasonably read, let alone make sense of, I had to take a look at this, albeit with a feeling of deep skepticism. Google says:
"Priority Inbox can help save you time if you’re overwhelmed with the amount of email you get. It attempts to automatically identify your important incoming messages and separates them out from everything else. Gmail uses a variety of signals to prioritize your incoming messages, including who you emailed most frequently and which messages you’ve recently opened as opposed to which messages you’ve deleted.

When you click the Priority Inbox navigation link on the left-hand side of your mail, you’ll see messages grouped in three sections: Important and unread, Starred, and Everything else. This is the default setup, but you may customize your sections on the Priority Inbox in Settings.

If Priority Inbox mistakes an email as important or doesn’t flag one that’s important to you, you can teach it to make better selections. Just select the message in question, and click the “mark as important” or “mark as not important” button; they’re the buttons with plus and minus icons just to the left of the Move to and Labels drop-down menus. "

Sound good? Well, I'm not so sure. It's going to prioritize people I email most frequently? Well, that sounds okay--obviously they must be important to me for some reason--but wait a minute, isn't it often more important to hear from people I rarely exchange email with? Friends I usually talk to on the phone or in person; relatives emailing to let me know someone's in the hospital; people I care about but lost touch with before email was available; journal editors and literary agents I might later have lots of contact with; genealogists who want to let me know I've made an error in my family tree... the list goes on.
How's it going to use opening email versus deleting as a signal? I often open email just because it's easier to get at the delete button from an open email. Or because I know I can quickly glance at it and file or delete it, whereas something more important has to wait because I know I'll need time to think about it.
I get a lot of mail from several academic email lists. I want to get this email--I subscribed to these lists, after all--but not all lists are equally interesting or equally urgent. Moreover, not all mail from a given list is equally important. I delete announcements about conferences happening two days from now in Germany, but I sometimes want to know about British conferences happening in two days, even though I can't go. I'm not going to propose a paper for next year's conference on Renaissance or Japanese art, but I might forward the announcement to someone who would. I don't see how Gmail is going to make very good decisions based on what I happen to open from my academic and software email lists.
Supposedly this prioritization process is going to be most helpful to people who get lots of email (I think yes for some, no for others), and for the email-bombarded who are willing to spend a lot of time upfront marking what's important to them. Hmm. I use voice-recognition software for certain projects, and that's something you certainly have to train in order for it to work well, but voice recognition software trains by becoming more familiar with the user's voice and by being corrected when it misrecognizes words. This mostly works pretty well for me because my voice doesn't vary hugely in dictation and because I dictate on projects that have a large but relatively consistent vocabulary. I avoid dictating on projects that involve a lot of foreign words and names, such as transcriptions of old lecture notes, because when I've tried that I spend too much time correcting words I'm only ever going to dictate once or twice, versus merely occasional use of foreign words. I think my incoming email is probably too much of a weird conglomeration of types of things to be effectively filtered for anything but spam.
On the other hand, I'd like to see Gmail develop better ways to filter incoming mail by topic. It does have labels, which I use a little bit; it doesn't have folders, which I'd use if it would only admit that labels aren't a substitute for folders. It needs more robust ways of searching for unread mail. I need, for example, ways to search for all those genealogical inquiries that came in on days when I had way too many other things to do; I'm interested in answering those people and at the same time those usually aren't quick emails to handle so they tend to get left till later and rapidly forgotten.
I'll be curious to hear whether people who start using the priority inbox find it works for them.

No comments:

Post a Comment