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25 June 2007 / erikduval

Order on the way out…

I haven’t read “Everything is Miscellaneous” yet, but picked up some of the ideas on-line. David Weinberger’s blog is a good read, and the google tech talk below gives an introduction to the theme.

David also contributed to the on-line Future of Education conference. (There seems to be a lot of other interesting stuff there!) One of the ideas he mentioned there seems particularly relevant to me: we should no longer worry too much about ordering things “on the way in”, for instance trying to put them in some specific place in a classification structure. Rather, we should make sure they accumulate rich metadata (including attention metadata – more on our workshop last Saturday soon!). Then we can provide order “on the way out”, in response to specific user interactions.

I completely agree with this concept and believe that it has profound implications for how we deal with information. As an example, I’ve maintained for a long time that “folders are dead”. I do not believe that the a priori investment of time and effort to categorize for instance emails pays off in better access to the relevant messages afterwards. For more than two years now, I have a pretty simple way of “organizing” my emails:

  • I save every email message that I read. Every single one. If the message is important enough to spend time on reading it, then it is important enough to save it, because I may need it afterwards. And I don’t want to invest time in deciding whether or not I really will need it afterwards – a decision that often is incorrect anyway: have you ever wanted a message back that you know you deleted?
  • Every saved message goes into an archive folder. I have one archive folder. Just one. Because I don’t want to spend time figuring out under which project, or which person, or which status, or whatever I should file the message. So, how do I find messages back? Simple, they have quite a bit of metadata on them (all the to:, from:, subject:, date:, etc. headers for instance) and I search those metadata to find them. Works for me.

(OK – there are a few “implementation details”: gmail would work great for this approach, but I filled up the capacity after 6 months and have been 98% full since 😦 I use Apple mail over IMAP, and actually start a new archive folder every 6 weeks or so, because filing messages takes too much time once the folder gets too large.)

And the implications of “order on the way out” go far beyond my email: in a way, the web illustrates the principle. When you create a new page, it gets organized as people start referring to it, not when you publish it! (In fact, that is a key difference with the earlier gopher system – I am getting old – where you put a document in a menu hierarchy to publish it. Anyone using gopher these days πŸ˜‰ ?

Or think about the “un-conference” approach (FooCamp for instance): isn’t that about creating order at the moment when you need it, rather than many months before?

You probably have some examples too? I’d love to hear about them…


One Comment

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  1. Tom / Aug 26 2007 5:11 pm

    I don’t have troubles having a lot of mails slowing Mail down anymore,at the moment I have 1200 mails in my inbox and it works like a charm. My secret: , the first time I did that trick, I had a huge performance boost!

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