By Farhad Manjoo
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.