Do you have email filters set up for some friends?

by Eszter Hargittai on May 22, 2007

John Tierney has a piece in the NYTimes about Dan Ryan‘s work concerning the sociology of notification and information dissemination among friends and acquaintances (based on Dan’s recent article in Sociological Theory).

I saw Dan give a talk on this recently and it’s a really fun and interesting topic. His work makes you think about things like why/when it is and is not appropriate to use cc vs bcc on emails, the proper order in which we should notify various people in our networks about certain types of updates, what medium is suitable for what types of material, etc.

The NYTimes piece specifically mentions the idea of setting up email filters for some friends. I must admit that I have filters set up for all sorts of people. I tend to do it by type of person (as in type of network) more so than by specific individual, although the latter idea isn’t foreign to me either.

As someone who studies savvy with IT, I consider the thoughtful use of email filters an important part of skill in how we interact with IT. Email filters are increasingly important for being able to manage the amount of material that comes our way via that particular medium.

[Thanks to Steve Mintz for alerting me to this piece.]

UPDATE: I forgot to post a link to Dan’s blog about the Sociology of Information. Check it out for more goodies.



nick s 05.22.07 at 6:59 pm

I think I’m actually reached a kind of ‘post-email’ stage that comes from having used it for over a decade now. I filter a few group lists to which I’m subscribed, even though GMail isn’t ideal for the kind of thing that old-school mutt handled with aplomb, but I don’t do much communicating via email.

Comparing my mailbox to my wife’s is instructive: she gets all-too-regular circulars and forwards from friends and relatives (who are even more recent adopters).

It sometimes feels as if my circle of friends has gravitated towards communicating on personal blogs (or livejournals with restricted access) in a more sophisticated version of what ‘ver kids’ apparently do these days with IM and MySpace.


Omri 05.22.07 at 8:29 pm

The spam situation at this point almost requires me to set up friend filters. Theoretically it should be a list of anyone who has sent me legitimate email and whose address is unlikely to be spoofed, but I’m often too lame to update it frequently enough.


stuart 05.22.07 at 9:31 pm

My spam filter had to go recently, I am down to manually filtering it all again. Why? I had an email with the following content dumped, despite it being from someone we have worked with for several years now:

I was speaking to [My Boss] today and he suggested that I get you to give us an idea on how long it would take to complete the tasks for the [Product] upgrade. Based on your earlier comments I didn’t think it would take very long. We would like to make sure we have a version for test by mid June.

You would think a simple addition to most spam filters/white lists would be that any email that you reply to should be assumed to be to a non-spam address unless you explicitly tell it so, to avoid having to update so often. Not that even then I would trust a filter even so.

What I have done for personal email is to have a published address (which is basically just the oldest one I have), that is used for signing on for stuff (amazon, blogs like this, boards, or whatever) and a private address that is only used for friends/family, and hence doesnt need any filtering.

Email as an application has continued to become less valuable (to me at least), just because spam makes it less reliable and more work. Compared to 15 years ago when it was amazingly useful when most of the people I knew suddenly spread out across the country (and a few years later all over the world). I tend to use private groups, skype (thats getting some spam now as its grown) and IRC channels mostly now.


Eszter 05.22.07 at 11:09 pm

Stuart, unfortunately, depending on friends and family, I have found that private emails don’t work to fight spam either. I have a very private account that I only used for emailing with some friends and family. I asked people explicitly never to cc the address and never to enter it on any Web sites. But a few did. And now the address is useless it is so spam-infested.


vivian 05.23.07 at 12:57 am

I find that with the spam filter set pretty low, it’s really much easier now to get rid of spam than it used to be. Manual spotting of the first new wrinkle, but the rest get caught. I have several, stratified addresses, but honestly, the more widely used haven’t been much worse than the others. Dealing with ancient, widely forwarded emails takes almost no time at all, and I get a lot of those. It’s not like we’re obliged to read all email that gets through the filters, how fast can you hit the up-arrow, or down-scroll?


A. G. Rud 05.23.07 at 1:43 am

I have two spam filters, something called PureMessage that Purdue insists everyone have, and then my Outlook Junk filter, which has inexplicably become more vigilant lately. I don’t filter for friends, as I clear out my email box with OCD regularity, and try not to overly classify. Regularly what happens to me is that a friend or colleague will use a different email account, and he or she will get filtered by Outlook to Junk. This is mildly annoying, but I just set that person up as a safe sender and poof, all is well for the time being.

I look forward to reading this material, as I often think about cc and bcc and such, and I wonder about what I should send to whom, particularly jokes or, say, nuggets on blogs like Crooked Timber!


cm 05.23.07 at 4:50 am

What email client are you guys using? I’m not getting really large amounts of spam, but I believe the various Mozilla/Thunderbird/Seamonkey varieties that have Junk Filtering do an excellent job of it. The filter being based on trained positives/negatives, you have to do some initial work teaching it, and if you correspond with many people it is probably advisable to review the Junk folder periodically, with decreasing frequency. When you clean out old Junk once per week while reviewing for false positives, it should be manageable.


Eszter 05.23.07 at 4:56 am

The point here wasn’t really about dealing with actual spam and junk, although that’s of course an issue as well. (I use GMail and it is extremely good at blocking out unwanted messages.) I was talking about messages people you know send to you (or mailing lists you’re on not always completely by choice) and how one deals with those.


nick s 05.23.07 at 6:26 am

Back on topic, following eszter’s urging, it’s surprising how little spam/content filtering has evolved in the past ten years.

Eudora had its chili-pepper system that scanned for rude words on incoming or outgoing messages, but apart from a few pattern-matches — GMail’s detection of tracking numbers and dates — there seems to be little that takes advantage of linguistic analysis to distinguish the multi-forwarded stuff from one’s mother-in-law from the other stuff. Which means, alas, that it all goes into a mailbox to be looked at when I’m sufficiently fortified.

The Bayesian algorithms are there, and the corpus is there (if you consent to your emails being indexed, that is). But there’s apparently no demand, just as my prediction proved false that there’d be seamless PGP encryption and identity verification in every email client by now.


Michael Mouse 05.23.07 at 9:10 am

Email filtering – how quaint! Takes me back to the good old days of email when you could read everything that was sent to you. I thought everybody just ran a half-decent search on their inbox these days?


almostinfamous 05.23.07 at 12:31 pm

yep. i have a group of filters called ‘friends’ which delivers most of my mail to a ‘friends’ mailbox. if it is someone i am in frequent contact with, then it also goes to the friends smart search box in apple mail(yeah, yeah, i know).


PZ Myers 05.23.07 at 8:11 pm

I also set up custom email addresses for each of my classes, addresses that I do not announce anywhere on the web, and then I tell my students in that class to send email there. And of course, there are filters on my email client set to recognize and prioritize any mail coming in to that address.

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