Social Sorting for Email

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In a recent Guardian column, Cory Doctorow discusses his tips and tricks for email. He highlights his favorite piece of “email ninjitsu” – sorting by subject – in this boingboing post. But what caught my attention was this bit from the full article text:

Colour-code messages from known senders

Somewhere in the guts of your email client is a simple tool for adding “rules” or “filters” for the mail you send and receive. Here’s a simple pair that have made my mail more manageable: first, add to your address book everyone who receives mail from you; second, change the colour of messages from known senders to a different tone from your regular mail (I use a soothing green).

This lets you tell, at a glance, whether a message is from someone you’ve seen fit to send a message to in times gone by. This is particularly useful for picking misidentified spam out of your spam folder: anything from a known sender that your mailer mistakenly stuck in there is probably worth a closer look.

It’s a simple concept, right? People you talk to are probably more important to you than people you don’t talk to. Yet email clients don’t really do a good job with this. They sort by date. Or by subject. Or author. If you want to know which messages are from senders who get mail from you, you have to set up a rule based on some grouping function in your address book.

A few years back, Marc’s group released a little app, called the Social Network and Relationship Finder (SNARF), which allowed you to view messages – in all their threaded glory – sorted by a few simple relationship measures. You could look at mail from folks you replied to. You could sort by how often you replied to them. You could sort by how often they sent you mail. And so on.

SNARF is only available if you use Outlook, the UI isn’t anything pretty to look at, and it had its functional limitations (the acronym got a few unflattering comments, too). Still, people who used it seemed to like it, and it was certainly handy for quickly locating the critical emails in a mass of unread messages.

I’d like someone to develop this functionality in a full-featured mail client, because having to run a separate app is a serious drawback. In general, I think messaging software – whether it’s a social media app or a system like email or IM – should allow the user to access, understand, and use the structure of relationships around them in order to improve their experience with the system. This is obviously not an easy task, but it’s something for us to keep in mind.