I look at this mess and think to myself, why? Why do I have to do this myself? Can't the computer help me here?
What I would like to see is a TrustRank-like system of propagating importance and reputation through a network of my e-mail contacts.
Here's how it would work:
Analyze who I e-mail, giving each person an implicit rank of importance based on my e-mail history.So, now I have a large list of which contacts are important, important to me and to the community that surrounds me.
Add in any people I explicitly indicate are important.
Propagate this importance through the network. That is, for each person I think is important, look at the people that important person thinks are important, and say those people must be at least somewhat important to me, then rinse and repeat.
On any incoming mail, combine the importance of the contact with attributes of the specific mail message to mark the importance of the mail. Call it EmailRank, a relevance rank for incoming e-mail.
Seems like this wouldn't be too bad to implement at a large web-based e-mail site like GMail, Yahoo Mail, or Hotmail. They already have all the contact data right there. Build the graph, propagate, add analysis of the e-mail. I'm surprised it hasn't happened already.
See also a couple interesting Microsoft Research papers around this idea, "Attention-Sensitive Alerting" (PDF) and "The Social Network and Relationship Finder" (PDF). Neither discusses propagation of importance through a contact network, but both have a lot of ideas on methods for ranking e-mails using other data.
See also "Better e-mail prioritization going mainstream?" on TechDirt.
Update: There are also recent articles in PCWorld, CNet, and other sites on SNARF, the second of the two Microsoft Research projects I mentioned.