Shadowbox zero

February 10, 2014

The other day a friend asked whether the amount of email she was getting was “normal”, and I realised I didn’t even know how it compared to my own inbox; so I had a look at how much email my work account had received over the longish weekend, from the end of Thursday (I don’t work on Fridays) to Sunday night. There were 130 emails, as follows:

  • 28 spam and bounce messages caused by spam
  • 46 automated alerts, reminders etc.
  • 37 mailing-list emails (of which 27 could be deleted with barely a glance)
  • 8 work-related emails not relevant to me
  • 6 work-related emails relevant to me (sent to the team/group, not requiring action from me)
  • 4 work-admin-related emails relevant to me (e.g. about fire alarms, wet paint, fridges etc)
  • 1 solitary email actually sent to me by another human being about the work I’m actually doing at the moment

It took me about 20 minutes to go through these and delete or file stuff (considerably longer than it usually would because I was also trying to categorise them for this blog post).

Let’s have a look at those categories in more detail:

  1. Spam. My University email address doesn’t actually get much spam (though it’s been increasing recently); most of the spam I get is actually sent to role addresses which go to RT queues which I’m watching. So I get a notification of the ticket created by the spam; RT then sends an automated holding reply to the sender; and if this bounces (as it often does) then I also get a notification of the bounce from RT. These are easy to delete in email (much slower to delete in RT, but I’ve more or less given up doing that because we’re phasing it out and won’t be migrating).
  2. Automated reminders. This includes: the output of cron jobs (some also via RT); notifications along the lines of ‘someone edited this page on the wiki/added this file on Sharepoint/etc’; how many views a web page got this week; people who followed my work twitter account; and so on. Most can be deleted with barely a glance.
  3. Mailing lists, irrelevant. I’m on lots of work-related mailing lists, and because ‘IT’ and ‘web development’ are fairly broad churches there are loads of threads which are irrelevant to me; I know without reading the email that threads with subjects like ‘Socket 1155 parts’, ‘Windows Server 2012 – Terminal server’, ‘Dell COA stickers’ etc are not of use or interest to me or my work. Also, most of these mailing lists have regular ‘social’ posts reminding me about regular meetups in the evenings and on Fridays, neither of which I can go to (though I’m sort of vaguely cheered by the fact that they keep on happening without me, as it helps to reassure me that I might be able to pick up ‘adult social life’ again where I left off when my daughter’s old enough to put up with a babysitter or be left alone).
  4. Mailing lists, sort-of-relevant. Then there’s the mailing list emails which are sort of relevant, sort of interesting. The posts about new technologies that it’s useful to stay vaguely aware of; the job vacancies (always interesting to see what’s going, what skills are being asked for, how they’re being advertised); the ‘do you have 5 minutes to test our new site on your iPhone’ requests; the ‘if you do web dev in HE we’d like you to fill in our survey’ requests… a million and one things on the periphery of my job, things I would want to do if I had the time, and none of them take very long, so it’s hard to delete them without a thought. (This zone of sort-of-relevance has broadened enormously since I started working in the area of Research Data Management, because it’s a vast sprawling field which seems to be proliferating technologies and verbiage and indescribable processes as if someone had crossed Professor Branestawm with H. P. Lovecraft. On speed.)
  5. Mailing lists, relevant. I do actually sometimes get useful and interesting stuff from the mailing lists I’m on (honest!): updates and information about software and services that I actually use; discussions about technologies and policies and workarounds; and the occasional bit of nerdy fun and humour.
  6. Work-related emails, irrelevant and relevant. Because our team shares an RT queue (actually 2 and a half RT queues for historical reasons, but let’s not go there) I get lots of emails about projects which members of my team (& closely related teams) are working on. It’s really useful to see this stuff out of the corner of my eye so I don’t miss those important “wait, we’re both working on the same thing here, can we join forces on this” connections, but I don’t need to read it all (especially since the way we use RT — ‘badly’, you might say — means that I also get copied on the emails where people are arranging dates/times for meetings about these projects). Also, because everybody knows I’m a watcher on these queues, occasionally there is a comment that’s addressed to me, or that I can help out with (e.g. on projects I have worked on in the past), so I keep half an eye out for that sort of thing.
  7. Work admin emails. These go to mailing lists so the irrelevant ones (about buildings I don’t work in, fridges I don’t use, mugs which are not mine, car lights left on, etc) already got deleted in category 2. The relevant ones tend to be things like changes to policies for sickness/holiday, information about fire drills in buildings I do work in, etc. (I should mention that I’m on a one-year secondment from a department which has two main locations into a job where I have two desks I can work at, so theoretically I could get relevant information about two different sets of HR policies and four different buildings. That’s a lot of fridges and fire drills and forms.)
  8. Actual email to me. Sent to me as a human being by another human being. This one actually turned out not to be very relevant or useful.

Now, there are clearly places where I could (should) be filtering incoming mail better/differently (NB I’m not asking for help with this), and maybe I should unsubscribe from some of the mailing lists, and I often don’t get round to cancelling automated notifications, and so on. But for me the biggest problem is not filtering out the obviously-irrelevant stuff, but dealing with the stuff in that grey zone that’s not quite relevant and not quite irrelevant, sifting through all the bulletins and the bacn and the bumf. And that’s still going to be difficult to deal with whether I filter it into a separate folder or not, block out time to handle it or do it as I go along, or whatever method you think is the One True Way. Some of the difficulty is caused by fear of missing out, but it’s also the case that lots of the really useful networking connections I’ve made — personal connections, opportunities for development or collaboration — have come from this information penumbra. It’s probably the strength of weak ties effect, and the strong effects are great, but those weak ties sometimes feel like a sort of weak broth of unproductivity, mostly a murky and formless thing that seeps into every crack of time, but with occasional nuggets of tasty usefulness bobbing to the surface.

For me, though, this isn’t primarily about ‘productivity’ or strategies for ‘taming your inbox’; it’s about the feeling that all my communication — and therefore most of my life — is like a garden which is slowly being reclaimed by bindweed. I’m sure I remember a time when getting email was exciting, when every email was from a human being who wanted to talk to me — not just friends but interesting strangers, e.g. people who had found my ‘home page’ (remember them?) and wanted to talk to me about the things on it; but I don’t think any communications medium is like that for me any more. OK, so my work email has never been quite so ‘exciting’, but I’m sure it used to be more focused. Email is awash in automated nonsense, all social media networks are drowning in adverts, paper mail likewise. Where did it all go wrong? Part of it is that I’ve got older — I remember how as a child getting post addressed to me was incredibly exciting, because it was always either a letter or postcard from friends and family, a thing I’d sent off for, or a letter telling me that I’d won a competition (a real prize in a real competition, not something from Tom Champagne); I couldn’t understand why my parents weren’t more excited by all the post they got, but of course later realised that this was because it was mostly bills, bank statements, requests to renew insurance, and all the boring life-admin that now fill up my own letterbox and inbox. And junk mail. I do think there’s more junk now than there used to be, but it’s not even just that: I think there’s more things pretending to be human. Spam or phishing emails pretending to come from friends or organisations that I trust; marketing and charity mailshots pretending to be handwritten, personalised; shops pretending to send me birthday cards… I feel as though I spend a lot of my life trying to distinguish the real human beings from the replicants, straining to see into the shadows. Perhaps the reluctance to filter everything automatically isn’t so much a fear of missing out as it is, at some level, a fear that if I devolve the task of determining who’s really human to something that itself isn’t human, I will become one of the shadows myself.

Conflict resolution

August 19, 2013

I recently got an email from campaigning organisation Avaaz (it’s OK, I agreed to be on their mailing list) as follows:

Gmail has made a change to its system which experts say could hide Avaaz emails in your inbox — you might now miss out on some awesome upcoming Avaaz campaigns.

To make sure you can participate in campaigns to stop the war on women, climate change, corruption and more all you need to do is REPLY TO THIS MESSAGE. Simply click “Reply” right now and press “Send.” If you’re lost for words — you can say: “Hi Avaaz.”

By replying, you are telling Gmail that you want to receive Avaaz emails and they’ll make sure you do. And once you’ve sent the message, you are done.

In the footer of the email, it says:

To contact Avaaz, please do not reply to this email. Instead, write to us at [contact form] or call us at [phone number] (US).

To reply or not to reply? I decided that the email body overrode what was obviously a default template, so I did what they asked: clicked reply, added “Hi Avaaz, I am happy to keep receiving your emails” and pressed “Send”. Obviously, I didn’t expect to get a reply from them, so I was surprised when I got one the next day:

This is an automatically generated Delivery Status Notification



Delivery to the following recipient has been delayed:

Message will be retried for 2 more day(s)

Oh. My first thought was “Ha, how ironic, their email falls over just when they ask people to email them!” followed by “Maybe they overshot their email quota because of all those people replying to their email”.

3 days later, after one more “delayed” message, I got the (by now expected) “Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently” message.

I think what has happened here is that is a no-reply email address (there are good reasons to avoid these in marketing emails), and Avaaz know this, but also know that if you try to reply to it then the address will be added to your Gmail contacts (even if the reply doesn’t get through). So they’re saying “just reply to this email” instead of saying “please add us to your contacts”, which on the face of it seems like a reasonable plan: people are probably more likely to hit reply than add a marketing address to their ‘contacts’; many people wouldn’t know how to add an address to their contacts, and wouldn’t bother to read/follow instructions if they were given; those instructions would have to account for all the different email clients people use, anyway; and even if you said “use the Gmail web interface” (or explained that in a way that non-technical users would understand) and only gave instructions for that case, Gmail would have probably changed their user interface again by the time the email arrived in people’s inboxes so your instructions would be out of date.

So, taken out of context, asking people to reply to a no-reply email address might seem like a sensible strategy in this case. But the context is this: Avaaz send me an email which a) looks a bit phishy, so I have to look at it a bit more closely to check it’s genuine, and b) asks me to reply but also not to reply (a bit confusing). Then in return I get three automated emails telling me that the email isn’t being delivered. If I hadn’t figured out what was going on, at this point I’d have probably thought that a) the email might have actually been some kind of spam/scam/virus/thing, or b) I’d done something wrong and the thing I was trying to do (stop Avaaz’s emails ending up in the spam folder) hadn’t worked. In other words, this process has depleted my daily store of decision-making ability and left me with some vague worries and uncertainty about whether it’s worked.

How could this have been better? Avaaz could have

a) told the user to add the address to their contacts (including or linking to instructions for popular email clients, or just leaving users to figure out the details). Disadvantages: lots of people probably won’t know how, or won’t bother.

b) told the user to reply, but explained the situation: “Replying to this email is the simplest and quickest way to add our address to your Gmail contacts. However, you will get a couple of automated replies saying that the email wasn’t delivered – don’t worry about this, it won’t affect your ability to keep up with our awesome world-changing campaigns!” (For bonus points, they could have taken “do not reply to this email” out of the footer for this one email, too, though I know CMSs and templating systems can make this kind of one-off customisation hard.)

c) used an email address that allows replies. Disadvantages: Avaaz might actually have to be willing to read and respond to replies.

I should say that I’m generally positive about Avaaz: they’re a campaigning organisation that doesn’t pester me with endless emails asking me to watch videos, forward emails to my friends, engage with their brand on social media, or donate money; they seem to have had lots of successful campaigns; their website lets me sign petitions simply and easily (and it’s usable enough on a smartphone). In the context of their actual core functions, this email contacts issue is a tiny, tiny thing; but it’s a sad truth that the small things can have a big effect on our impressions of the organisations we interact with. Fortunately, they’re also — hopefully — the easy things to fix!

G is for gaps

March 13, 2012

While trying to set up some more intelligent Gmail filters, I’ve become aware of three frustrating gaps in the system:

  1. When I first used Outlook, about 10 years ago, I was delighted when I discovered that it was possible to highlight all the emails which were sent only to me. Simply changing the colour of these entries in my inbox made it easier to see at a glance which emails were expecting my personal attention, and therefore easier to prioritise accordingly.

    Given that this had been possible in Outlook for so long, I assumed it would be trivial to reproduce this effect with Gmail’s filters… but it appears not. You can filter on to:me, but this doesn’t exclude emails sent to you and others. You can filter out individual email addresses (e.g. filtering the To: field on me, will find the messages sent to you but not to Joe Bloggs) or wildcards (e.g. -* will filter out any emails sent to a recipient at, but there doesn’t appear to be a valid wildcard which will match all email addresses other than your own.

    The most annoying thing is that Gmail nearly makes this filter possible with its Personal Level Indicators. Switching on this feature annotates the emails in your inbox with a “>” if the mail was sent to you and others, or a “>>” if it was sent only to you; this is useful, but there is still no way to sort or filter on this property.

    (Priority Inbox is another option which is heading in the right direction but still not quite what I want.)

  2. I like the idea of Google Tasks; I like the fact that I can move an email to the Tasks list or create a task independently of an email. I have two other accounts that I use as well as my gmail account, though; and I’m often checking email from my iPhone rather than a desktop/web client, so it’s harder to interact with the Tasks list directly. What I really want to be able to do is email a task to myself (or bounce an email from another account); ideally, I’d use plus-addressing and filters to do this — that is, filter anything sent to straight into the Tasks list, so that I can set up an alias to that email address in other accounts. However, there doesn’t seem to be any way to apply a filter which will move an email straight to the Tasks list when it’s received.

  3. Related to the above, but slightly more obscure (and probably not compatible with the above): I want to be able to use plus-addressing to assign labels to the things I bounce into gmail from my other account. I can do this if I set up a filter for that label, e.g. I can get the ‘badger’ label applied to any email sent to; but I don’t want to have to remember to create a new filter every time I add a new label. What I want is to be able to say that email sent to janetmck+(.+?) should be assigned label:$1, ie use the bit after the ‘plus’ to determine what the label should be.

Am I just missing something here? I’d be delighted to be told that the only gap here is between my ears, and that any of these things are actually possible!

Inboxing clever

November 15, 2009

In the process of trying to get from ‘Inbox 600’ (otherwise known as ‘completely out of control’) to something more manageable, I’ve been thinking about what would make email easier for me to deal with. So here’s my wishlist. (Most of this functionality probably exists in at least one email client, or would be scriptable with a bit of effort.)

1. The ability to set an ‘expiry date’ on email when it arrives.

I get a lot of mailing-list email to my personal account which contains offers, “what’s on”-type information, the sort of thing which might be useful at some point over the next couple of weeks but isn’t immediately useful now. I keep it in my inbox as a way of keeping it “on my radar”, reminding me occasionally that it’s there in case I want to look at it; but I’d like to be able to tag it for expiry in, say, a couple of weeks — or when the next email from that mailing-list comes in.

Similarly, at work I get a lot of email containing ideas or suggestions for things that I could do if I had time; I want to set them to expire (or at least require manually ‘renewing’) after a couple of months. If I haven’t found time to do something within that amount of time, then either a) it’s too time-consuming/complicated to do inbetween other tasks, and should either become a genuine project/task and be logged/managed as such, or b) it’s just not actually that important.

Also, most emails don’t need keeping for ever. At work, I keep a lot of ‘paper trails’ in email; if I haven’t referred back to them within 6 months then I’ll probably never need to — but if I haven’t referred back to them in 6 months then I certainly won’t remember to go back and delete them after that time. At home, I keep a lot of confirmation emails from online shopping; I don’t want to waste paper by printing them out, but once I’ve saved them to my ‘admin’ folder they’re basically in a black hole. I want to save them to whichever folder is relevant but also set them to expire in, say, 1 year’s time (very few receipts etc need keeping longer than that). Organisational emails from friends don’t need keeping for ever — I may want to keep the emails where we tried to organise a party or something, but they’re not such works of literary genius or items of such sentimental value that I’m likely ever to revisit them.

(To be honest, I can’t remember when I last went back and re-read an old email for sentimental or nostalgic reasons. Occasionally I grep through my various read-mail files for specific bits of contact information, or for half-remembered words or phrases; but even that’s quite rare. Maybe I shouldn’t be keeping any of it.)

2. The ability to move things from email to other applications more easily.

This is getting better with more integrated calendaring, contacts, task-lists, etc. (not to mention Google Wave!), but there are things that just aren’t easy enough yet:

  • When an email contains dates and times, I want to be able to add those easily to my calendar, with a link to the email. It should be possible to delete the email from the event, or vice versa, or both at once.
  • When an email contains an address, I want to be able to add it easily to my contacts, with the email address, and whatever context is necessary from the email.
  • When an email has a PDF or doc attached, I want to be able to add that easily to a document store, detaching it from the email, but keeping a link to the email. Again, it should be possible to delete email and document in one go.
  • When an email contains a bit of text that I want to save, I want to be able to highlight that extract and save it as a snippet, automatically adding a ‘citation’ consisting of the name/email address and the timestamp.

3. The ability to tag and filter more flexibly.

This is the area where it’s almost certainly me who’s deficient, not the email clients. I want to be able to:

  • manually tag emails with as many keywords as I like
  • search/filter according to the presence/absence of single tags or combinations of tags
  • define rules for automated tagging according to sender/subject etc

Tagging probably entirely removes the need for folders (and is obviously more flexible as things can belong in multiple categories), but I admit that I still think in terms of folders. Ideally the user interface would make it possible for me to set up virtual ‘folders’ based on tags, rules, etc to ease the mental transition from one model to the other.

4. The ability to set automated replies based on sender/subject/time

For example, an ‘out-of-office’ reply to work colleagues during out-of-work hours, telling them that I’ll deal with their query in the morning; an ‘out-of-socialising’ reply to friends during work hours, telling them that I may check personal mail during work but they shouldn’t rely on it and I probably won’t have time to give them a long reply (but they can phone my mobile if it’s urgent).

5. The ability to set different levels of alert for new emails or other triggers

Rather than choosing between a popup alert for all new mail or nothing, I’d like to have, say, an SMS alert when email from my husband arrives in my personal inbox; an audible alert when email from certain senders arrives in my work inbox (as it’s probably important enough to interrupt other things for); no alert at all for emails from mailing lists; some kind of alert when my inbox goes over a certain number.

6. The ability to queue specific emails to be sent automatically at specific times

I want to be able to write work-related emails at the end of the day or in odd moments in the evening, but set them to be sent at 8:50am the next day, so I don’t end up getting sucked into work email exchanges late at night. If I write the email and postpone it, I don’t currently have a way to remind myself that there’s an email sitting in the invisible out-tray. Also, if I’m writing official announcements or questions to send to mailing lists, the time when I get a chance to write the text is not necessarily the best time to send the email (something sent to a mailing list on a Friday afternoon risks getting buried in an avalanche of silliness and pedantry; the same email sent on a Monday morning will get a much more sober and potentially more useful response). Ideally, this would work in close conjunction with my calendar, so it’d be easy to, say, set a reminder email to be sent half an hour before a meeting.

7. Built-in coffee-making functionality

Ideally this would be triggered when the inbox goes over a certain number of messages, or when email from specific colleagues arrives … Well, hey, I can dream. :-)


July 27, 2009

Sorry for the long hiatus; one of the reasons for the break was that I got married earlier this year (it’s a surprisingly time-consuming process).

My husband took my name when we got married, and as well as providing an opportunity to learn how to make a deed poll for free the process forced us both to think about our web and email presences, the extent to which these are tied to our ‘real’ names, and by extension the searchability of names in general.

One of my husband’s priorities, when he knew he’d be changing his name, was to register a gmail address under his new name (you can see why I married him!). This meant choosing the format of the email address: firstname.lastname, lastname.firstname, initial.lastname… the choices are endless, and it was only when I came to suggest that he should choose something consistent with other family members that I realised that my family have managed to be as inconsistent as possible:

Dad: firstnamelastname@gmail
Mum: firstname.lastname@gmail
Sister: f.lastname@gmail
me: firstnamelas@gmail

In my case I just used the same username as my longest-standing email address, which in turn was chosen because of the username policy on that particular system. The sysadmin writes:

I don’t routinely allocate usernames which are very likely to clash (ie, ones which someone else – including a later new user – would be likely to want.) I also try to avoid allocating usernames in a way that encourages people to guess the email address of someone whose real name they know but whose username they don’t. This means I don’t generally issue just first name, or just surname, unless the name is very unusual. As a suggestion, more sensible alternatives include initial(s) and surname, or first name and remaining initials.

All well and good, but they also imposed an 8-character limit; my surname’s longer than that, and my first name plus initials would have looked like a rather odd word. (These days I’m more likely to run into the minimum character limit, having adopted a 2-character nickname — which was allowed on LiveJournal and Twitter, but disallowed on eBay and a few other sites).

Fortunately, gmail makes our family’s inconsistent data slightly better by ignoring dots in the local-part of the address; so firstname.lastname and firstnamelastname are the same account… as indeed is, if you want to be awkward. Good news for the early adopter who has the username anticip...........ation@gmail (yes, it’s gone).

Then there’s the searchability of your name. My husband opted to keep his ‘bachelor name’ (to coin a phrase) as his middle name (as women sometimes do with their maiden names — e.g. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Heather Mills McCartney) so that a web search for him under his unmarried name would still find him. We’re both lucky enough to have names which are moderately unusual (we’re not drowning in an unsearchable sea of John/Jane Smiths or equivalent), we’ve been early-enough adopters to claim our names on various sites, and we managed to claim our facebook usernames of choice without even having to get up at 4am.

Despite the excitement of the great username giveaway, Facebook still stands out as the one big social networking service where you’re actually expected to use your real name (I’m not counting LinkedIn because that’s really more about the ‘networking’ than the ‘social’). I cut my internet teeth in an era when an 8-character username was expected, even hip (I got quite attached to the four-letters-four-digits userid I was allocated at university; it was as much part of my identity as my ‘real’ name or my IRC nick), so the idea of using your actual name — your fuzzy, human-readable, nowhere-near-unique, not-even-adequately-namespaced name — seemed just absurd! And yet it works, unless you’re trying to find your schoolfriend Jane Smith (and you’re not even 100% sure that she hasn’t married, so even looking through all “over 500” Jane Smiths (Janes Smith?) might not help. At the end of the day, we’re used to dealing with the idea of knowing people who share a name; in the UK we even tend to eschew adding a “Jr.” or “III” as disambiguation. Maybe the Facebook fashion is the future: a future where we force computers to adapt to our redundancy-filled systems rather than forcing ourselves into their high-information mould? The sci-fi stereotype seems to tend in the opposite direction (I’d be interested to know if there are earlier instances of this than Zamyatin’s We with its protagonist D-503) but perhaps in 30 years my loyal adherence to the 8-character username I chose in 1999 will seem as archaic as giving a married woman her husband’s initial (e.g. Elizabeth Jones becoming “Mrs J. Smith” on marrying John Smith) does now … or even taking her husband’s surname.