Wading through e-mail is one of the primary woes of office workers everywhere. Despite many theories on how workers should process their incoming messages, most people still seem to feel buried in the flood. This week at Defrag 2009, a technology conference in Denver focused on tools and technologies for handling online data, experts suggested that the best strategies for fixing e-mail might rely on information and strategies drawn from social Web technologies.
“E-mail is kind of this giant, endless task list, and you’re really the slave to a lot of stuff that comes to you,” said Lili Cheng, general manager of Microsoft’s future social experiences labs. She believes that incoming messages need to be organized and sorted in a more automated fashion.
Particularly within a corporation, Cheng noted, there’s a lot of data that could be used to process e-mail more intelligently. Corporations have access to instant messages, desktop searches, and e-mail messages, on top of external information from social networks such as LinkedIn or Twitter. That constellation of information could be mined to organize e-mail within an in-box around certain projects, or certain groups of contacts.
Just as importantly, she added, it could be used to deemphasize less important e-mail. Cheng said her group found that about 70 percent of the e-mail people receive is information they don’t actually need to read, though many like to have it on file. Her group built a prototype that created a different section of the in-box for this type of e-mail and extracted a daily summary of it that could be displayed to the user.
E-mail needs to be put in a lot more context, echoed Michael Cerda, founding CEO of cc:Betty, a system designed to help organize group discussions. “Let’s wake up the data,” he said. “Let’s bring it to life. If there’s a place, give it an address.”
Services do exist that attempt to treat e-mail more intelligently. Google’s e-mail service, Gmail, for example, extracts mentions of dates and times from e-mails and offers to move them to a calendar. Xobni, a plug-in for Microsoft Outlook, provides statistics and social data on the people with whom a user exchanges e-mails.
But even Xobni co-founder Matt Brezina believes that more can be done to put e-mail in context. “We’ve just done the basics,” he said. Adding location information to e-mail could be particularly powerful, he said. Clients could, for example, extract information posted on social networks and use that to display where a contact is currently located. This could help facilitate common tasks such as scheduling meetings with people from different companies.