Snobbery Filtering, for Email Overload

[if you got this by email, and it’s garbled or missing images, please try reading it at].

Oh Gmail.  We’ve come a long ways, over the years.  I shared with you my deepest secrets, you gave me filters and keyboard shortcuts and Gmail Labs.  I love you.. but darling, you must, you MUST, you must stop constantly introducing me to your random uncouth friends.

Thackeray - The Book of Snobs - ch.3 illustration

Thackeray, The Book of Snobs (1848) Ch.3 engraving

Dear, it’s called a boundary.  I will entertain, I will invite in our friends and acquaintances of quality; but I will not live outside in the gutter.  I expect there are some very nice persons among your.. people, but the rule simply must be, I shall invite chosen acquaintances to my home;  rather than having all comers wandering in through our wide-open front door, and using the facilities.  I cannot be spending my time sorting through this horde of interlopers, and worse, having to strain and scheme trying to force this human muck back out the door, an effort often futile and unchaste.

Accordingly, I must ask that from now on we observe certain standards.  Such as, oh, DOORS:  unless I invite in one of your people, he shall remain firmly outside.  Further, in these mixed and foul times, we must insist that anyone whom we have not chosen to address, shall have no claim upon us, nor shall we look upon them or deign to hear them, unless we so decide.

. . . . . . . .

Analogously to the indignant lady-of-the-house speaking above, maintaining a proper household, I’ve been thinking about the perennial problem of how to block unwanted strangers (or acquaintances) from your inbox.  Typical email systems have a presumption of validity, delivering any email that is not filtered out e.g. as spam (which, of course, follows the normal practice of pre-digital mail systems, that basically, deliver to you whatever has been mailed to you).

If, on the other hand, you accept mail only from pre-approved senders, you have a “whitelist” or “trusted sender” system. This takes a less democratic or trusting view: that anyone not my friend or acquaintance is presumptively, my enemy.

Given the “toilet that is email”, as a friend aptly put it, my suggested approach is what I’ll call Snobbery Filtering, a derived, exclusive, whitelist system:

  1. exclusive whitelist in that only mail from whitelist senders is accepted; strangers are preemptively diverted;
  2. derived, in that whitelist is mainly inferred from to whom I’ve sent email

So, concretely:

1) In my Inbox, show me only email from addresses which:

a) I have previously sent email to  (spoken to…); or
b) I have manually whitelisted, i.e. designated as a permitted sender. (see 2) below).

2) For all other email, divert to either

a) a Holding folder, where mail can be periodically reviewed and the sender tagged as whitelist or blacklist; or
b) a Spam folder for anything that triggers general or personal spam filters.

It seems too simple, yet it seems like the above Snobbery Filtering would address the key problems that most people have with the medium.  I really can’t figure (without more research..) why this is not widely implemented and available. I’d be happy to turn it on for my email:  despite years of frustrating filtering effort, there are still rubes walking through my (inbox) living room with muddy boots, regularly.

Maybe people too often do want to invite strangers in;  or perhaps it’s that such filtering requires a lot of calculation — examining each email relative to each addressee, rather than just examining the message in isolation.  But computer power is ever cheaper, and I think a bit more of it to keep strangers out of my living room is a no-brainer.

I know there have been various related efforts in the past, such as restricting incoming mail to senders in your Contacts list (AOL, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail? one or more of them), but it’s never seemed to be implemented well enough to be adopted on a large scale, that I know of. For one thing, your set of accepted senders is not synonymous with your Contacts list — we have aggravating, chain-letter-sending cousins, and we have newsletters we want that aren’t sent by a “Contact”.

Plugins like Xobni, or enterprise mail filtering services like Postini probably use something like Snobbery Filtering as a factor, but as far as I know they still work mainly via probabilistic rules, not a solid “front door”.  In all, I’ve never used a consumer or corporate mail system that wasn’t obviously, if occasionally, letting in strangers.

Thackeray - The Book of Snobs - XXVI - page_99

Thackeray - The Book of Snobs - XXVI - page_99

Gmail’s recently-launched Priority Inbox feature aims to do filtering something like what I’ve described, and I’ve been testing it out. But, not surprisingly for a Google service, it is algorithmic, i.e. is about “training” various rules to identify Important mail.  Unfortunately, you as user are enlisted in this “training” efforts — so we now seem back to the presumption of email validity (show mail to addressee unless it is filtered as spam or, in this case, as not Important).  It’s still letting a lot of people in to your house, off the street, and asking you to throw out the ones you don’t like.


Then there is filtering by your ISP (Internet Service Provider).  This is a bit like a security post at the entrance to your subdivision or private street, looking out for ne’er-do-wells.  It might be helpful, but on one hand, you can’t trust it enough that you’ll leave your house’s front door open; and on the other hand, some of your friends you do want to visit might get hassled or shut out by the guard.

Good Mail Systems

Also, bad guys, or salesman, might bribe the security gatesman.  That’s the case where a large-scale email sender, e.g. marketer, makes a deal with an ISP to let its email through.  In a widely controversial 2006 case, AOL and Yahoo made a deal to use Goodmail Systems’ CertifiedEmail system such that mail from senders who prepaid 1/4 cent per message would be delivered directly to users’ mailboxes without being subject to spam filters.

Well so much for your ISP preventing spam!  It turns out, they may have an interest not only in letting in spam, but in overriding your local spam barriers!   The gatesman might not only take bribes for letting unscrupulous salesmen through, but he might give the salesmen keys to your house.

So, we are back to our Snobbery Filtering — simple, user-centered, and under our control.  What interests me really is, how much of email’s main problems, for how many people, could be addressed with Snobbery Filtering?  As compared to the far more complicated systems used by Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, Gmail, etc.?  Or, how many people might prefer this arrangement than their present one?

I think email services should have, long ago, built and evolved trusted-sender systems like this.  The services seem to have settled on aiming for mostly right, and for thinking mostly in terms of spam vs. non-spam, rather than in terms of filtering by use of discoverable social relations — e.g. deriving filters from your email usage patterns.  To me it is quite remarkable that only now has Gmail come out with their Priority Inbox feature, which takes a Snobbery approach — think if they’d launched it five years ago and actually product-developed it until now, to learn all the nuances of how to do it well.

Facebook Mailbox

"the 'Gmail Killer' Facebook Email system...replaces the internal message system and now incorporates emails, Facebook messages, SMS, other chat clients....will also feature the Social Inbox."

Unfortunately, while email services have been fiddling, Rome has burned:  much of the online world’s momentum is moving to trusted, comparatively closed systems such as text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook.  There, for the most part, one deigns to communicate to people;  rather than they deigning to walk right into your inbox, right in your front door. However, these systems lack many of the virtues of traditional emails:  inherent opennness to all comers, transparent technical standards, extensibility to all computing environments, etc., which made email the greatest universal medium ever.

But a tide is turning:  already, plenty of people I know are not reachable reliably or at all via traditional email;  they are, by Facebook or Twitter or SMS.

Email was an exercise in democracy that, for many people, has failed — in large part, for its lack of manners, its social mixing of friend and stranger:  in short, its lack of snobbery.  To maintain this world-changing and essential medium, what we need is renewed separation between the classes, and widespread unkindness to strangers.

Images:  W.M. Thackeray, wood engravings for his The Book of Snobs (1st edition,1848).  scan of book copy from the Bodleian Library, Oxford; via Google Books, France.

0 thoughts on “Snobbery Filtering, for Email Overload

Leave a Reply