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To Guericke, the LinkedIn toolbar will improve on SNARF by addressing broader social criteria than e-mail histories. “Our view is that you need a mix of implied relationships,” he says, stressing the importance of less-obvious contacts, like new business leads, that e-mail histories can’t divine.

Guericke noted that the new toolbar will take advantage of the LinkedIn web site to recognize messages from new senders within one’s existing social network. “Leveraging e-mail patterns is a good source of data, but profile and relationship information is also needed to get it working well enough that users will find it useful,” he says.

To some technologists, however, building social awareness into e-mail systems is overkill. Several existing applications already organize and prioritize incoming e-mail better than algorithmic filters, says Ross Mayfield, chief executive of Socialtext, a networking application that uses community-editable bulletin boards, called wikis, to entirely replace e-mails in project management.

“There are times when you come back from vacation and you’ve got two thousand e-mail messages, and [SNARF] could provide one dimension to sort that data,” Mayfield says. “If I were to advise users, however, I’d have them use this as a filter of last resort. A ranking of what might be more important to you, based on past behaviors, may only lead to the creation of a different echo chamber.”

While Mayfield believes group-based wikis are one way to reduce interoffice e-mails, he also thinks that a focus on e-mail searching, rather than sorting, can help sift through bloated inboxes, while minimizing time reading irrelevant e-mails. “You don’t need a filter up front if you have a strong search to fall back on,” he says, citing the integrated search capabilities of mail systems like Google’s Gmail and Yahoo Mail.

Of course, no system so far can identify and appropriately emphasize messages from the connections you make outside the electronic world – the person with whom you just swapped business cards, the long-lost cousin, or your friend with a new e-mail account.

Coye Cheshire, a professor in the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies social exchanges online, believes imposing rules – even those derived from previous habits – limits communication. “We can probably make good assumptions based on e-mail use, but we have other interactions they’re not taking advantages of yet,” he says.

Cheshire believes these types of problems will be addressed by the next generation of socially-aware tools, which he hopes will integrate networking intelligence into everyday communications, such as phone conversations and instant messaging. “As we see things moving more towards electronic-based forms of communication, telephone lines moving to electronic broadband lines, it raises the possibility of greater interactive communication,” Cheshire says.

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