Friday, December 02, 2005

E-mail overload, social sorting, and EmailRank

Many of us know what it is like to be overwhelmed by e-mail. We fear our inboxes as a never-ending, poorly differentiated barrage, requiring laborious effort to manually skim, sort, and prioritize.

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.

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.
So, now I have a large list of which contacts are important, important to me and to the community that surrounds me.

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.


Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic idea. Forget about trying to stay one up on the spammers. By default, they would appear as less important e-mail to me than real e-mail.

When are you going to build this system?

I can think of one scenario that could be a potential problem. Take me for instance, I have a work e-mail and then several personal e-mail accounts, one for family and friends, and one for public consumption. Yet these all flow into the same e-mail client.

Would you have a separate rank for each account and then somehow prioritize the accounts or would it disregard the accounts and focus on the mail in a mail client?

I like the concept, I would love to see someone start coming out with a better, more efficient e-mail client.

Maybe its time you became the Flock for Thunderbird? ;)

Greg Linden said...

Thanks, Elroy. I don't think Findory could build this system at our scale, but I'd love to see one of the big guys do it.

Hi, Peter. Right, SNARF is the second of the two MS Research projects I listed. It's been around for a while, but it was recently mentioned on Lifehacker, TechDirt, and elsewhere. It doesn't appear to have the idea of doing importance propagation through a contact network, the EmailRank, that I'd like to see someone do.