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To tag or not to tag email?

Maybe the better question is, "Should we take a different approach to tagging email vs. other information?" 

I know a lot of people are jumping on the "don't even bother to categorize email" bandwagon lately, and I'm considering what aspects of that approach are applicable to how I operate.  I've dramatically flattened my work email folder structure in the last couple years, and now I put things into much broader categories.  My over-categorization eventually led to excessive effort to find anything, but that was before client search tools & interfaces began to really improve (e.g. Tbird's quick search & saved search folders).

I often see the argument, "But I can always search my mail!", and that's true.  In fact, as the tools are evolving, I'm becoming a huge advocate of using search, but I don't think that precludes manual categorization; I think it's an additional capability.  People seem to be increasingly recognizing the value of tagging information, and Gmail's "labels" are essentially tags, so why exclude email?   

As good as search tools are becoming, there is still value in doing some "pre-processing" (specifically, I mean categorizing it, using whatever means available, tags, folders, etc.) of email.  As I've noted before, adding tags enriches information and improves search results, among other benefits.


A hybrid approach?  Email is different than other information we manage 

I've often prided myself on how quickly I can find any email message, but in fact, I don't refer to my saved personal mail as often as I used to think I would.  I do actually refer to my saved work mail a lot, and  that's largely due to the nature of my job & culture of my team.  By contrast, I tend to refer to my non-email files (e.g. documents, spreadsheets, notes, photos,etc.) quite often.  (Interesting!  I do this much more with my personal files than work files; probably because most of my work stuff is email-based.)  Given that, maybe it's not important that email be as "enriched" as other information.   Of course, this depends on how and for what purposes people use  email.  Perhaps we should use a hybrid approach, relying a bit more on search and expending less effort on pre-processing, since many of us probably:

  • have a more rapid influx of email relative to other information we accumulate
  • have many more email messages than non-email files
  • don't refer to saved email as much as other saved information
These two "balance questions" come to mind:
  • value gained by enriching information (by tagging/categorizing it) vs. time & effort spent time doing so
  • effectiveness of pre-processing vs. searching
Clearly, the frequency of receiving and referring to the information are two of the factors that must be considered.  I think this balance is shifting as search tools improve, but there will always be value in some pre-processing.

I'm curious to know if other people are thinking about this question in the context of email vs. non-email information.  Email definitely has different characteristics than other information, and I think it is important to distinguish the two.  For example, we typically use different tools to manage each -- email client vs. file system browser/command line -- and historically, there have been good reasons for this.  How do you manage & process email vs. other information, and why?



Migrated from my former blog


By Taylor - Wed 25 May 2005 08:00 PM PDT

I can always search email....and typically I find that email only has "time" relevance, i.e. you rarely go find that email from a year ago! Therefore I think it is a complete waste of time (and have said this for years) to perform any kind of categorization, tagging or other such "pre-search" work.

That said, there are times when it makes sense to categorize, or otherwise distinguish certain types of email (there are always exceptions to the rule, right?). In the past I have found these to be certain kinds of feeds, e.g. housing/rental listings - which would now be sent to bloglines anyway, or highly relevant threads/conversations, maybe a re-fi or something else high priority.

For everything else, a thread typically is no longer than 4 messages (at the most!) and can be found easily by scanning back (manually, if I used Google maybe I wouldn't, but Yahoo!'s search is somewhat poor) a few days worth, or performing a hard search.

A final reason why I think it's a waste of time to pre-search email - it's a high-volume, medium response type of information, which is why it's relevancy drops off quickly with time. I *already* spend too much time on email, I think it's not worthwhile to spend more (and most of my time spent is not searching).


By James E. Lee - Wed 25 May 2005 09:06 PM PDT

Clearly we agree on some general points, but we take our (age-old) arguments/approaches to different extents.

Part of that may be due to the fact that my work is extremely email-centric. I should have made it clear that I rarely refer to my personal mail; in thinking further about it, I actually do so fairly often with my work mail, since email such a part of my job and my team's culture. I'm going to go edit the article to include that point.

For me, such a heavy emphasis on time relevance doesn't work; I am terrible at remembering when a given subject was current, and I prefer to leave that to a computer to tell me. That's part of why I like some pre-processing. I think we'll always be at different places along this particular spectrum, but it's good to keep the discussion going!