Email overload, content management

As verbose as I am in class, you should read my postings on the Blackboard discussion boards. Oh wait, you can't. Oh wait, you can -- if I re-post them here. It's not as narcissistic and self-involved as it sounds, though it's that, too. I spend goodly bits of time and brain energy writing my posts, and I'm not keen on them disappearing into the digital ether when the class is over. I sometimes also put links to various sites in these mini-essays, so for that reason also, it would be fun to keep them around.

Herewith, a reaction to the following readings:

  • Lehikoinen, Juha, Antti Aaltonen, Pertti Huuskonen, and Ilkka Salminen. Personal Content Experience: Managing Digital Life in the Mobile Age. Chichester, England: John Wiley, 2007. [48-51, 84-94, 127-157]
  • Whittaker, Steve, and Candace Sidner. "Email Overload: Exploring Personal Information Management of Email." Paper presented at the Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, April 13-18, 1996, 276-283.

For the Lotus Notes scenario, I imagine that the lack of standardized practices and behaviors would make the retrieval of important emails very difficult. (Would it make the storage difficult? I don't know.) I believe most of the metadata in the emails would be the obvious stuff, such as the standard To: From:, etc., and the header path information, and so on. These could provide clues.

But the only clue to the content of emails (and perhaps their attachments) would be in the Subject line, which notoriously doesn't change even when the thread of the conversation changes. If the users create folders to hold their mails, then that could perhaps provide a further clue to content, but my project email folders tend to be few and fat, and so a single folder will hold dozens of different conversations and threads related to many different topics, spread over several years.

I'd bet that, if an old mail needed to be accessed, one could locate the file format of the email, see how the sender and receiver information was coded, and then a brute force search on this info would then give you a smaller pile of messages to search through, but it'd still be a pile. Date information may be helpful in locating something specific, if you know about when an event occurred.

I think there are very few emails that sum up the situation of a project or a decision in a coherent narrative. Most emails regarding a decision accrue over time and, without the sender or receiver there, I think it would be difficult to recapture context, motivation, and other crucial information that would help you understand the import of an email message. It would be as difficult for the sender or receiver to piece together as it would an outsider.

I thought the Symbian developers' metadata framework pretty interesting and intriguing, really carrying metadata as far as they could take it. Their focus is on automating the metadata extraction to the fullest extent possible and not depending on the user to do more than take a picture, select a name, send an email, make a call -- the users use their phones instead of managing files. (The Notes users by contrast were on their own in managing their files, content, and metadata.)The associative web of relationships, separating the metadata from the content, and use of meta-metadata I thought was a really clever way to capture, organize, and retrieve context and association from the mass of stuff that users collect on their mobile devices.By kind of taking the user out of the record-keeping loop, their framework enables an outsider to examine the associative links and probably deduce or intuit connections that would not otherwise be possible. The framework connects lots of dots but there still may not be a complete picture; but I think this approach gets you closer to the picture than the scattergun emails do. It would have even more power for the user, because the links and associations may help remind her of circumstances she may have forgotten.One thing we didn't see in the extract was just how the user uses this stuff at their home pc. The writers said that synching files was a tough job, and certainly storage on a mobile device isn't unlimited, so at some point those photos and mp3s have to leave the device and live somewhere else. How are those files and associations then stored on the home PC? Does the home PC have applications that can take advantage of all this rich metadata? Or have the developers in effect created a walled garden in which their framework does everything as designed, but no other technology can work with it? (That's probably not their intent; their architecture probably allows for other developers to tap into the metadata framework; but aging and ill-documented architectures could trap data as easily as aging hardware.)

I was struck reading the last section by how all parts of their metadata framework are in motion. Files on my computer just sit there until I call them up. On this mobile device, opening a file fires off a round of associative metadata linking and updating; it's almost bewildering trying to comprehend all that's going on.