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Thought of the day: tagging email
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gemsling
A popular trend in the online world is tagging. At sites like LiveJournal, Flickr and del.icio.us you can tag your posts, photos, bookmarks, etc with keywords. The ability to share tags and browse by tags gives rise to social tagging, and with scale, useful metadata. This has been such a big thing that the term Folksonomy was coined. In a presentation titled Ontology is Overrated, Clay Shirky made this remark listen about people who tag bookmarks with "To Read":

The cataloger looks at this tag in horror - this is context dependent and temporary! Well, so was East Germany!

Why can't I tag my email?

I can move emails into different folders, but then I have to remember which folder to go to when I want something.

I can save a search as a virtual folder, but it's hard to catch everything without human discretion. An email about rehearsals might not contain the word Hartwell at all, but I still want to see it in my "Hartwell" view/folder/search/category.

If we could tag emails, we could add information that would aid findability later on. I reckon we'll see tagging come to email in some form this year. If not to stand-alone email clients, then to web-based services like Gmail.

In Opera, you can create "views", which is a start: you can place a message in a view without taking it out of your main Inbox. But having to create views first means less flexibility than being able to add tags freely. Plus, it doesn't play well with IMAP, and I need to have access to my email (and tags if I had them) from multiple locations.

What do you think? Would you like the option to tag emails as you read them?
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The key is to make it really easy, so a good implementation is a must.

Until sites like Flickr came along, no one would have thought of tagging email. "It's a one line email with a twelve line signature - why would I spend time typing in words and commas?"

But del.icio.us has addressed that problem by using auto-completion and letting you select from your popular tags, which are shown with changing size/colour/emphasis to highlight the most used ones.

So here are the features we'd need:
  • Can tag multiple messages at once.
  • A handful of your most used tags to click on.
  • A text box where you can type in tags.
  • Auto-completion and/or suggested tags based on what you're typing.
  • The ability to automatically apply tags using filters/rules.
  • Tags stored in indexes to make searching and browsing by tag fast.
  • The ability to browse (as opposed to search) by tag. Sort tags by frequency of use, recency of use or alphabetically, then select one to see all matching messages.
  • Email clients could also get fancy and apply some complex algorithms that analyse each message and suggest tags based on their content. For example, it might notice that I've tagged other messages from Colin with "theatre" and suggest the tag for me.
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