Sorted Affair

Cut down on e-mail chaos with Gmail’s new Priority Inbox.

I get about 200 spam e-mails a day. The senders go to extraordinary lengths to get my attention—they torture the English language, they offer me great discounts on life insurance and exotic pharmaceuticals, they promise to make my wife a very happy woman—but it’s all for naught. Over the last few years Gmail, like other e-mail services, has become very good at spotting spam. It catches just about every junk message before it hits my inbox; the messages are rerouted to my spam folder, which I almost never open (and when I do open it, I almost never notice legitimate messages marked as spam). In other words, spam—which was once the great boogeyman of the Internet, a scourge that was often predicted to bring down e-mail entirely—is no longer a problem for me. When I polled my colleagues at Slate recently, many reported a similar situation. They don’t spend much time dealing with junk mail. I bet you don’t either.

Slate’s late sister publication The Big Money noticed spam’s disappearance last fall—”Surprise! We Won the War on Spam,” it declared—but the shift has been relatively unremarked upon by the tech industry. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and other companies haven’t held any celebrations to herald the end of spam. Why not? Despite the death of spam, e-mail hasn’t gotten much easier to deal with. That’s because our inboxes are inundated with legitimate mail.

Not only do we get ever more mail from our colleagues, friends, and family, we also get all kinds of annoying messages that aren’t technically spam. In your inbox right now, you’re likely to find friend requests from people on LinkedIn or Facebook, CNN alerts about breaking news, and a message from someone in your office letting you know there’s cake in the kitchen, followed by several responses letting you know that the cake is gone. In the deli-influenced parlance of e-mail management, these legitimate but not urgent messages have been labeled “bacn” and “bologna”—they’re better than spam, but they’re not the real deal. And until now, they’ve been a pain to deal with.

On Tuesday, Google is launching a remarkable new feature in Gmail—a system that sifts through your daily flood of incoming mail and picks out messages you’re likely to deem important. The new system, called Priority Inbox, is the opposite of a spam filter. Instead of looking for keywords that mark unwanted mail—”Buy now Vic0din 3o% of!”—Priority Inbox looks for signals that a message is especially valuable. Among other things, it analyzes your experience with a particular sender—is a message from someone whose mail you tend to open and reply to? Was the e-mail sent only to you, or was it part of an e-mail list? Did the message contain keywords that have proved interesting to you in the past? If a message makes the threshold for importance, Gmail marks it with a small yellow tag. These messages will appear at the top of your inbox, above the rest of your mail.

I’ve been using the new system since last week, and so far, I find it pretty amazing. Right out of the box, Priority Inbox correctly flagged my important messages about half the time. It highlighted messages sent from my editor and my wife as important, while less-salient mail—a message from one colleague to another indicating that a story I had nothing to do with was ready for publication—were correctly left unflagged.

Priority Inbox promises to get better the more I use it. Google has added two buttons that let you train the system—you press one button to mark a message as important, and another to mark it unimportant. Keith Coleman, Google’s product director for Gmail, told me that in the company’s tests with its thousands of e-mail-addled employees, it generally takes about two weeks for Priority Mail to become optimally attuned to people’s mailing patterns. I’ve used these buttons over just a couple of days, and Priority Inbox has already improved appreciably. By Monday morning, Gmail flagged around four out of five of my important messages. The false-positive rate, too, was pretty low—I found myself voting down only about one of every 10 messages flagged as important.

If you want Google to start sorting your e-mail, simply go to Gmail right now and turn on the Priority Inbox. (If you don’t see this option, wait a short while; Google will roll it out to all Gmail users over the next few days.) If you try it and don’t like it, you’ll be free to toggle back to Gmail’s classic, chronological view. It’s wise of Google to let people do things the old way, because Priority Mail isn’t for everyone. If you don’t get very much e-mail and find it breezy to sort through your messages, then you don’t have a good reason to try Priority Mail. If, however, you’ve spent a lot of time pondering how to deal with your daily mail torrent, Gmail’s new mail-sorting feature could make your digital life a lot more manageable.

When you log in to Priority Inbox, you’ll see three different sections of e-mail on a single page. The top section is marked “Important and unread”—all incoming important mail will show up here. This section is designed to be “self-cleaning,” which means that if you read or reply to a message, the mail drops out of this pane, and out of your way. The second section is for e-mail that you’ve starred—messages you’ve already read and explicitly marked as important. The final section is for everything else—the messages that aren’t spam, but aren’t important, either. (I’m describing the default layout for Priority Inbox; there’s a settings page that lets you tweak these sections in many different ways.)

The three sections suggest a quick and easy daily e-mail strategy. When you log in to your inbox, check the top pane first and reply to anything that needs your urgent attention. For messages that you can’t respond to immediately, hit star—they’ll drop to the second pane, where they’ll serve as a constant reminder that you’ve got to respond. You spend the least time in the final section; you can peruse it just a couple times a day to make sure that Priority Inbox hasn’t missed anything, but you don’t need to look at it obsessively.

Over the last few days, I’ve found that this strategy works much better than the ad hoc system that I had been using to manage my mail—a partly manual, partly automatic, and constantly shifting effort to filter, label, and scan for the few important messages out of the hundreds that hit my inbox every day. Google employees seem to find it just as useful; according to the company, Googleites who used the new system spent 13 percent less time working with “unimportant mail” after switching over.

Still, Priority Inbox is a work in progress—even after you train it for weeks to capture important messages, it’s not going to be perfect. Technically, sussing out valuable mail is a very different kind of problem from fighting spam. Spam-hunting benefits greatly from crowdsourcing—when millions of Yahoo or Gmail users flag a message as spam, it (and messages like it) gets filtered out for everyone. But the crowd doesn’t have much to say about what messages you are likely to find interesting; these are more personal decisions, and they’ll require more creative approaches by software engineers. Gmail has made a great start in this effort, but I hope Priority Mail gets competition from Microsoft, Yahoo, and other e-mail companies. We’re all going to keep getting more e-mail, and we’re going to need all the help we can get.

Become a fan of Slate  and  Farhad Manjoo  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.