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Many workers will return from their holiday vacations to an avalanche of unread e-mails. And sorting the important ones from the trivial might just exhaust any holiday goodwill – especially now that three-quarters of all incoming office e-mail is junk, according to research firm Gartner.

There are new solutions to manage one’s mailbox, however, that combine software and sociology. Going beyond existing measures, such as spam filters and blacklists, these newer applications prioritize incoming e-mail by studying the patterns of human interaction.

Microsoft Research released one such program on November 30. The free download is called SNARF, for Social Network and Relationship Finder. It runs alongside Microsoft Outlook (2002 and newer versions), poring through e-mail histories and following chains of communications to ferret out the unread messages it deems most important.

SNARF measures a sender’s importance based on two key factors: the number and frequency of messages sent and received. The program then sorts unread e-mails into three fields: messages where the user is listed in the To or CC fields, group e-mails, and all messages received in the last week. SNARF lists messages by senders, rather than subject lines, and puts a user’s most important correspondents on top.

Danyel Fisher, a researcher in Microsoft’s Community Technologies Group and a member of the SNARF development team, believes SNARF’s effectiveness lies in its simplicity. “We’re just counting e-mails,” Fisher says. “Some people might call it a brain-dead algorithm, but the messages you send someone is a pretty good proxy for how well you know people,” he says. “It can be very detailed.”

Microsoft has no plans yet for incorporating SNARF into a commercial program such as Outlook, but Fisher says social networking will continue to be a theme in the company’s product development. “Even though this is just demonstration software, it’s telling us there’s a hunger for new ways of thinking about e-mail,” Fisher says. “We’ll be taking into consideration what’s important, and how people use it.”

Not surprisingly, Microsoft isn’t the only company that see the benefits of adding social networking intelligence to productivity applications. LinkedIn is a web site that leverages the six-degrees-of separation principle to help professionals network. It expects to release an update to its Outlook toolbar application in January that will prioritize e-mails by finding personal relationships among other LinkedIn members.

“E-mail is an essential tool, and people are having a problem managing it,” says Konstantin Guericke, co-founder of LinkedIn, who believes the network of contacts users have already made on his company’s service can also help organize their messages. “We have a network and we want to use it to be applicable to people’s lives – not just every two years when they’re looking for a new job,” he says.

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