Who Wants Queries In Emai’ls "To:" Field? Don’t Include Me in That Query Result.

January 23, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Posted in email, etiquette, social software | 2 Comments

MIT’s Technology Review reported today on a prototype e-mail system that “allows users to direct a message to people who fulfill certain criteria without necessarily knowing recipients’ e-mail addresses, or even their names.”  To paraphrase the idea, the “to” field is being treated as a query (e.g., all people at company X in role Y) and can allow for fuzzy logic (e.g., all people interested in X). 

The article mentions one scenario I deem useful (addressing to a person’s most recent email address by just entering their name), and acknowledges the obvious room for abuse and spam.  I can’t even fathom how much spam would result if spammers or semi-spammers like recruiters or real-estate brokers could send emails to “everyone with income > $100,000” or “everyone who graduated from Harvard” or “everyone who owns a single family home”.

But I think the real issue here that wasn’t addressed in the article is that this system is entirely skipping over the entire burgeoning field of social networking.  Yes, people want to be able to find everyone in product marketing at a certain company or everyone from their high school graduating class, but we have social networking systems to do that.  For consumer use there is LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, and Xing.  For enterprise use there is IBM Lotus Connections, MySites in Microsoft SharePoint, and the social search capabilities that were in BEA Pathways were merged into Oracle’s secure enterprise search.

But people want to maintain their social networks and decide which communities to join.  If I want to associate myself with a group that I could join, such as “University of Chicago MBAs”, that’s my decision.  I don’t want it made for me by a query engine.  And if that community wishes to keep its list private, as the “Ex-META Group Analysts” group does, that’s our business too.  There’s a rich set of social connection and community functionality – creating, joining, inviting, disbanding, leaving, mining, referring, federating – that people want to do with social networks.  The richer functionality described by this addressing system seems to ditch all of that in favor of a query that determines your inclusion or exclusion based on a database without injecting the human effort that goes into nourishing and pruning one’s group and community memberships.

As Mike Gotta pointed out in his posting on Facebook And Power.com: It’s About Honoring Mutual Relationship Rights, connections between people depend on trust and, accordingly, permission rights. 

I’m reading a lot into this system and what is probably some great academic work from a summary article.  It could be very interesting on academic merits.  But as a tool for culling social connections built into email, I think it doesn’t fit real-world needs and expectations.  The fact that a set of queries can determine you are a member of a group doesn’t mean its results will be useful (as an indicator of true commitment to a group) or welcomed.


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