December 2, 2005 4:00 AM PST
SNARFing your way through e-mail
The software maker this week released a free utility that aims to sort e-mail in a new way: It can organize messages not just by how recent they are, but also by whether the recipient knows the sender well.
The program, known as SNARF, bases its approach on the fact that people tend to interact more with messages from those they care about.
Microsoft researchers are offering up a tool, called SNARF, that uses social analysis of e-mail use to enable people to organize the messages in their in-boxes.
The technology aims to help people sort through the morass of incoming e-mail more effectively. Though they are now part of a research project, SNARF features could make their way into products soon.
"You don't respond to everybody, and not everybody responds to you," said Marc Smith, one of the Microsoft researchers who developed SNARF, or Social Network And Relationship Finder.
Though SNARF is a research project for now, Microsoft said that similar features could soon make their way into its e-mail products.
Smith boils it down this way. His computer, for all its power, serves up his e-mail without distinguishing junk mail from messages sent by close friends. His dog, on the other hand, learns who his friends are and stops barking at them.
"If my dog can tell who strangers are, apart from friends...my e-mail reader should be able to do the same," he said.
The task is increasingly important as people become overloaded with e-mail. Though many like to be alerted to new messages, the barrage of notifications is now so frequent for many workers that it is nearly impossible to get any creative work done without being interrupted.
"The machines got us into this problem," Smith said. "They are going to have to get us out of it."
Smith calls today's method of sorting e-mail the "ADD sort order," in which the newest messages are constantly presented first, regardless of who sent them. There has to be a better way, he said.
Figuring out who your friends are may not seem like a task well-suited to computers, but Smith said it's simply a matter of making sure that the computer is adding up the right things.
"The beautiful thing about computers is that they are really, at their core, accounting machines. They love to count things. Social relationships are countable," Smith said.
In SNARF's case, the software looks at how often people correspond with particular content in the body of a message and how often they reply to one another's correspondence, among other things.
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