Monday, March 30, 2009

Can Google Save Emailers From Themselves?

Most people, it seems, have sent off emails they later regret sending. In last Friday's edition of Slate magazine, reporter Michael Agger comments on what Google is calling its "Gmail embarrassment reduction pack." Among the new features are a five-second window during which you can hit an "undo send" button. While Agger wishes Google would come up with a more powerful version that would reach out into recipients' email boxes minutes or hours after you send a regrettable email, there are technical server barriers that make such a thing practically impossible.

Saying or doing things you are sorry for later is nothing new, but email has made it treacherously easy to fire off flaming ripostes, jokes from the Poor-Taste Review, and confidential memos to people you either change your mind about sending them to later, or sometimes even to people you never intended to contact, if the automatic email-address-completer function guesses your intentions incorrectly. The other day I watched an old suspense movie about a woman whose husband falsely accused her of murder in a letter he mailed to the local district attorney's office. The plot's engine ran on her efforts to get the letter back from the post office, and we got a little tour of how a small-town 1950s post office handled such requests: badly, it turned out. They refused her requests at every turn. Just when it seemed that all was lost and the letter was about to fall into the hands of the DA, here it came back to the woman in the next day's mail—returned for insufficient postage!

So even when it took many minutes or hours to send a letter, people would get into trouble caused by someone's malicious hand, if not their own. With email, it just happens faster nowadays, and there's no friendly (or unfriendly) postal employees to go talk to and beg for your emails back.

Google is to be commended for something that software engineers do too rarely, which is to take into account the real ways that average people (not other software engineers) actually use and misuse their products.

Sometimes this works well, but other times it backfires. For example, I am using two different version of Microsoft Word at work. The old familiar version makes .doc files, but the new version produces something called ".docx" files that my old version can't make heads or tails of. I understand that one reason each version of Word is bigger than the previous one is that "backward compatibility" is something they've tried to preserve over the years. What this means is that even files made by nearly prehistoric software (meaning, anything older than five years) should be readable by the latest applications. Evidently this got to be impossible with Word 2007, or so difficult Microsoft decided to bite the bullet and pitch it—hence the .docx problem. Which incidentally forces anyone who receives Word attachments to get the new version of Word, but that's another issue.

So at least part of the time, I'm using the new 2007 Word, and it tries to read my mind. For example, any time I type a period it capitalizes the following word. If I'm typing regular sentences, that's appropriate, but if I'm typing lists, or software code, or other things, when I type a lower-case letter after a period, I mean a lower-case letter. So then I have to go back and type the same thing again. There must be a "that's what I meant the first time" detector built into the program, because at least it doesn't keep capitalizing the letter over and over again. I've searched all over the preferences controls for a way to turn this irritating feature off, but I can't find it. Perhaps a merciful reader will write in with the solution. In the meantime, it slows me down and adds an incremental bit to the annoyance level of my job.

It would be an interesting exercise for some anthropologists with time on their hands to try to recreate what software engineers and developers think human beings are like from the way we are expected to use computers. We love generic, inane clip art that tries to look different but always looks like cheap clip art; we make common grammatical errors all the time and require the help of our word processors to fix them; but we always mean to send emails immediately after we write them and never have any regrets (unless we're using Gmail, in which case the regrets always show up within five seconds). We demand tons of new features in every new software package even though we end up using only a few percent of them. We love new things of any kind, even though the added value or usefulness of them is sometimes hard to see. A good number of us respond to web ads placed anywhere in our visual field, regardless of whether the ad pertains to the website we happen to be looking at, especially if the ads have little animated figures of women wiggling their behinds. And enough people to make the scam worthwhile apparently believe there are really usurped former princes in Nigeria looking for someone to help them get their cash out of the country who email strangers at random trusting them with their cash, if they'll only send a few bucks to Nigeria to prime the pump, so to speak.

This is not an edifying picture. To a great extent, general-purpose software and the web are a free-market response to what people are actually like, and to that extent, the picture is accurate. But instead of just extracting money from our wallets, it is good to read that some software developers are at least trying to appeal to the better angels of our nature, in Lincoln's famous phrase. I hope Google's efforts reduce the number of email flaming incidents and to that extent, make the world a better place. But human nature being what it is, I'm sure we'll find ways around it too.

Sources: The article "Can't Believe I Just Sent That" appeared in Slate magazine on Friday, Mar. 27, at

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