'Up-voting' and 'Likes' will change group e-mail if MIT researchers have their way

Social network-like tools could replace the limited and archaic opt-in and opt-out group e-mail management, say MIT researchers.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) are working on
Credit: iStockphoto

Many have endeavored to find ways of controlling e-mail. I’ve got my morning e-mail deluge down to under thirty-or-so usually. But that lean number is because I’ve got a methodology in place. My methodology is quite simple, I unsubscribe from every bulk and junk mailing that I possibly can.

However, there’s one major contributor to my inbox that I’ve been less successful in curtailing. It’s the chaotic, and often hot-air-containing group e-mail.

A combination of not wanting to offend friends and colleagues, fear of missing something important about the group, and a vague sense of guilt that I ought to be reading them instead of blindly deleting them has me frozen somewhat.


It doesn’t have to be this way, though, researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) say.

They’re working on a group message pruning system called Murmur.

The scientists reckon that the way to handle group e-mail is to introduce social network-like tools such as up-voting, following and blocking. The now-aging, sole unsubscribe option should be killed off, they think.

One idea is that tentative senders should be able to post a message to a group of friends, who give it a “Facebook ‘like’ or a Reddit ‘upvote,’” before it spreads to the entire group. Once it’s OK’d, then it can populate the list.


List members should be able to choose how much mail they receive in order to reduce interruptions and white noise.

And that should go further than simple frequency preferences. Yahoo Groups currently offers a batched, daily digest instead of individual, real-time messages, for example.

However, CSAIL thinks that the group members shouldn’t have to choose a delayed delivery, just to reduce quantity. Members should be able to mute gabby participants and threads, or specifically follow ones they find interesting.

Google’s Inbox

Ah, you might say. What about Gmail’s Inbox with its “Important” and Unimportant” folders, for an idea? Well, it’s too “paternalistic,” MIT Professor David Karger says in an MIT News article about Murmur.

Google has too many “mysterious classifiers,” Karger says, the human should be in “direct control.”


But you, as sender shouldn’t have to muzzle yourself, the scientists think. There should be tools that handle that. In the team’s research it was found that perceptions of others preferences was often wrong.

Group users aren’t able to figure out how much mail the other members of the group want. Self-muzzling and posting too much were commonplace. Group members can’t figure out the balance. Murmur hopes to address this by figuring out ways users can better know their audience, and know how their content is received.


With all of its issues, the group e-mail is still popular. Reasons found during research by Murmur’s developers included that there’s a greater confidence that an e-mail will be seen, as opposed to a social network group that doesn’t have guaranteed delivery; and also that e-mail feels more private.

E-mail tamers

E-mail clearly has a popular place in communications still, despite Twitter, project management tools, and zero-e-mail initiatives. I’ve written about some of these tools and ideas in “Stop using e-mail in 2015” for the Disrupter blog in Network World, if you’re interested in the subject.

E-mail has been around since the beginning of the Internet, and so have listservs, Groups, and casual cc’ing, so the group e-mail probably isn’t going away anytime soon.

It just needs to be tamed a bit.

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