More on email overload

Yet more reaction to this article:

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.

From a records management POV, I had these thoughts:

  • People are so overwhelmed when they're in the thick of their email, that they can't discern an immediate difference between the ephemeral and the archive-worthy. (This is even though they describe their jobs as mostly managing email.) For this reason also, we can't depend on them to prune their stash of mails.
  • If the users can't categorize their mails so they can locate them, then records managers will have even less success at helping anyone find them later.
  • If we're faced with having to archive everything, then nothing is of value. You can't find the needle if you keep adding hay to the stack.
  • If we establish retention policies, then we're the only ones who will follow them. I perceive these users as being so busy, that they will think of archiving as someone else's job. They already have too much work to do.
  • The article doesn't address the issue of file attachments (I use Gmail for file storage as much as for communication) or of the corporation owning your email. File attachments are as important as emails these days.
  • Again, it's not mentioned, but users are more likely to hear from corporate IT that their inboxes are taking up too much storage space and that's when they have to purge. At [previous workplaces], we took training now and then on retaining records, but you hear more often that you need to trim down your mailbox size.

Other stray thoughts and babblements:

  • This article was written over 10 years ago, and I wonder what biases or expectations the authors and the users brought to the topic of email and email programs. What were they expecting email programs to do for them?
  • Having used Lotus Notes at various jobs since about 1995 or so, I can testify that its general yuckiness contributed mightily to the users' problems. Although Notes has added buttons to let you copy a mail into a calendar or to-do entry, those are areas of Notes that users I've worked with know very little about, like the Journal or To Do areas. You can make Notes remind you to do things regarding your mail or tasks arising from it, but it requires you to click buttons and takes you away from the inbox, which seems to be everyone's home base. When people leave the inbox pane, Notes is a lot more forbidding and cold, with toolbars and commands appearing that don't have anything to do with email. (Which makes sense--Notes is a document database program with an apparently sophisticated macro programming language, and these toolbars and commands help with database and record manipulation; an email is just another document in the database to Notes, but that's not how users see an email record. I read somewhere that the original developers built the email app originally just to show what could be done with the language; but it turned out that customers wanted emails more than the databases.)
  • That said, Notes STILL doesn't have a threaded message feature as Outlook does and it regularly frustrates me. Add to this annoyance the extra one that [my workplace's] Notes team has turned off full-text indexing, so searches are slow and incomplete, and you can't search within file attachments. I can't say enough bad things about Notes.
  • It would be easy to blame the users for not managing their emails, but the problem also lies with the app developers who either don't listen or are unable to accommodate technical improvements that might make life a little easier for their users.
  • I think these users were not taught good work habits, basically, and probably expected Notes to do the thinking about their work for them (there I go, blaming the user). I doubt any of them had 90 voicemails just sitting there, yet they'd have twice that many emails just sitting there. What is it about the email UI or the promise of email that makes people think their work is done?

On the subject of Gmail Overload, here are two links to how a PR guy uses Gmail as the center of his information universe. These postings include links to other articles in the series where he contorts Gmail into painful positions.

Micro Persuasion: Turn Gmail Into Your Personal Nerve Center http://www.micropersuasion.com/2007/02/transform_gmail.html

Micro Persuasion: How to Use Gmail as a Business Diary and More Tips http://www.micropersuasion.com/2007/04/a_few_weeks_bac.html

This link is to a guy who thought email was great and now thinks it's bad. THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_print.html#pollack

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.

Early in my writing career, I had an assignment to follow around a mohel–the guy who does ritual circumcisions in the Jewish tradition. My subject learned the trade by watching his dad, a renowned figure in the field. One day, father told son he was ready to handle the tools himself. Why now, the son wanted to know. “Most students ask me how much to take off,” the senior explained. “You asked me how much to leave on.”

Martin Luther King - American Irony


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In a nation that is preoccupied with God-talk, in which the separation of church and state is being eroded and denied, a nation in which our “conservative” politicians constantly invoke the Judaeo-Christian tradition, you’d think that a holiday in honor of a preacher-activist-humanitarian would merit a national holiday, i.e., a holiday that is universally observed the way Presidents’ Day is. Even a secular humanist atheist like me would support it.


Martin Luther King - American Irony

"No Links Please" drains HREFs, discourages web fiddling

James Clarke – No Links Please!

Here’s a fun one. Our old pal (and the coiner of “life hacks”), Danny O’Brien, passes along an extreme attention aid that might be regarded as the heir apparent to his wonderful “Webolodeon” script for GreaseMonkey.

No Links Please will do its part to keep you from mindlessly surfing the web:

No Links Please! breaks the web by removing hyperlinks from all pages apart from Google. Without the knowledge or temptation of links you are free to devote…


“No Links Please” drains HREFs, discourages web fiddling

Emails as a Game of Life?

Academic Productivity has another great post, this time on the work of Carolin Horn at the Dynamic Media Institute at the Massachusetts College of Art (a visual designer, BTW, not an information visualization specialist) and her coder Florian Jenett. Using her Apple inbox as her petrie dish, her web page contains wonderful animations of species of hairy microbes that reflect the state of her inbox; spam and email from friends look totally different, while newer, more urgent mail is hairier and quicker. She also describes a grouping function of her project, titled Anymails, and the chains of microbes begin to look like early wormy life forms.

It puts me in mind of John Conway's Game of Life, an artificial life simulation that obeys only a small set of rules yet can exhibit surprisingly varied behaviors. It would be strange to not see rows of text but instead colorful wriggling lifeforms in my inbox. You could make it a game to clear the inbox, or take a cue from the Game of Life, and have a squirming microbe spawn an instant reply.

Carolin has a fascination with the natural world and its possibilities over static user interfaces: one of her other projects is an encyclopedia of the arts represented by different classes of jellyfish.

Building models (info or economic) in your spare time

I enjoyed reading Hal Varian's paper How to Build an Economic Model in Your Spare Time. It succinctly describes how to build a theoretical model for how a system may work, from getting the idea, to testing it out, to improving it. It requires you to have a little ambition and a little less ego. At the end, he summarizes his major points, and it strikes me that this is also a good way for any student or academician in any discipline to grow intellectually and think bigger thoughts.

  • Look for ideas in the world, not in journals.
  • First make your model as simple as possible, then generalize it.
  • Look at the literature later, not sooner.
  • Model your paper after your seminar. (Varian recommends leading a seminar on your model, which forces you to get your ideas in shape so your presentation both educates and entertains your audience.)
  • Stop when you've made your point.

Of course, he goes into greater detail on these and other points, but I really liked the first one: read magazines to get an idea of the ideas and problems that are in the air. That appeals to my pragmatic side.

And since I'm a total software geek, I also enjoyed reading how he uses his computer to write his papers. At the time of the writing (the last update was in 1997) he used UNIX, kept a notes.txt file to contain ideas, thoughts, an outline, and in general used this file similarly to Mark Forster's idea of continuous revision. Only after he's collected ideas for weeks and months does he move to writing a first draft of the paper or chapter. He also uses UNIX's rcs for a revision control system.

Insofar as his idea of writing notes from audience or seminar Q&As, I'd suggest you use either a tape recorder or get a volunteer to write the questions and comments down for you.

Welcome to Eltingville on Adult Swim Video

Welcome to Eltingville, the pilot based on the Eltingville Club strips from Dork, can be seen on the Adult Swim Video site for the next few days. Here’s the pilot, if you are interested.

The viewers have given the episode a rating of 4 out of 10, which is a whole lotta ouch. I looked at a few minutes of it and while it didn’t make me feel overtly proud, it certainly didn’t make me nauseous. I’d give it a 7. Your mileage may vary. Like, a 2 or something.

Yeesh. A goddamned 4 from the…


Welcome to Eltingville on Adult Swim Video

234 - “Slumless, Smokeless Cities”


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Take that, Harry Beck. Try as you might, the lines on your Tube map could never be as straight as this.

Beck schematised a transportation system that was completely irregularly laid out to begin with. This map, however, shows how planning ahead would enable not just symmetry, but also better living conditions, or as the map itself states: “Slumless, Smokeless Cities”.

The map was drawn up by Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), the father of the garden city movement. Howard believed…


234 - “Slumless, Smokeless Cities”

WIlliam Gaines On "To Tell The Truth" via Classic Television Showbiz

Classic Television Showbiz, a blog run by Kliph Nesteroff, is far and away one of my favorite sites on the World Wide Wasteland. As the name implies, it’s all about that vast wasteland we know and love/loathe called television. More to the point, it’s about old clips from TV, culled from the even vaster wasteland known as Youtube, featuring a bevy of celebrity heavy hitters, also-rans and complete obscurities who polluted the airwaves during, oh, let’s say the 50’s up through the 80’s….


WIlliam Gaines On “To Tell The Truth” via Classic Television Showbiz

I Ching, or Yijing

Dragons fight in the meadow.
Their blood is black and yellow.

I have been throwing hexagrams for a week now, and trying to understand the I Ching. I have only the barest understanding of what is going on, but even so, they have been wildly, almost frighteningly, accurate at representing what’s going on in my life at the time. Today I was very pleased to throw 2. K’un, The Receptive

On the recommendation of my Doctor of Chinese Medicine, who has been studying with the I Ching for almost…


I Ching, or Yijing

Steve Jobs on connecting the dots

Here, on the morning of the Macworld keynote address, some earlier words from Steve Jobs, from a Stanford commencement address, June 12, 2005:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san…

Steve Jobs on connecting the dots

Carrot2, a clustering search engine

Mary Ellen Bates raves about Carrot2 in her latest InfoTip newsletter. Carrot2 clusters search results, much as Clusty.com does. Carrot2 differs in that it's using a Swiss meta search engine, etools.ch, as the basis for its initial group of search results, while Clusty uses US-based meta search engines. Both the Carrot2 and Clusty home pages look like mirror images of each other, down to the various selection tabs on offer. As a test, I entered "information retrieval" as a search term in both. I didn't do a hard analysis, of course, but I found Clusty's clusters generally more scannable and valuable as a starting point for further searches, as the clusters tended to be more granular. Carrot2's fewer clusters seemed to survey the landscape at a slightly higher level; specifying different sorting algorithms (available under Show Options) was fun though--"Rough k-Means" and "HOAG-FI" shook up the clusters and yielded a more interesting display.

By the way, I'm also subscribing to Mary Ellen's Info-Entrepreneur newsletter. I'm able to visualize myself doing that kind of work soon; up to now, I've not had a real picture of where my IS degree may take me. The Info-preneur/Information Broker idea at least gives me a start at something to form ideas around. I also consider it a good omen that her initials (MEB) are the same as mine. :)

Mary Ellen also runs a blog on the side, Librarian of Fortune, where she "contributes white noise to the blogosphere." Highly recommended, as are her newsletters.

Two New Anthologies

Designer names to come

The BDR loves anthologies: see a few more here , here and here. (And for something even cooler, keep reading.)

The Book of Other People (gotta be Charles Burns illustrations, right?) comprises 23 stories by writers such as David Mitchell, Dave Eggers, George Saunders and Chris Ware. According to Publisher’s Weekly, “(Zadie Smith’s) instruction was simple: make somebody up.” I’m dying to know if there are more illustrations on the back cover.


The…
Two New Anthologies

Doomsday is Friday

For 2008, that is. Here’s Wikipedia on the Doomsday rule:

The Doomsday rule or Doomsday algorithm is a way of calculating the day of the week of a given date. It provides a perpetual calendar since the Gregorian calendar moves in cycles of 400 years.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

This movie, with its hints of Metamorphosis and Maya Deren, probably will stand as one of the best of the last ten years.  Of course it has a deeply economic theme: how much of the value of life stems from our ability to trade, and how much from our ability to play games of pure coordination?  Plus the French health care system is so good that all the nurses are beautiful and pay infinite attention to a single patient, or maybe that is just how French movies are made.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly