Search changes everything

You might think this is about Google and the web, but it’s not. Well maybe it is in a way.

Mah Bukkits

A few days ago, I wrote about how much I really love mah bukkits — and I can’t think of a better example of how things used to be for me. I got tagged with an internet meme by my colleague Henrietta a few days ago, and in the process of pulling together the background and doing a little reminiscing, I went to find if I had any archive email (I’ve stored a lot of my history in email) from 1998.

And this is it. 58, FIFTY-EIGHT topical folders in the archive mail. I can’t even really screen capture the whole thing because the list is too long. (the best folder name not in the list is “Whine/Waaa/Mea Culpa”).

FIFTY-EIGHT. It bears repeating because it’s so absurd. Now, there’s some technical reasons here. In 1998, just about every mail client on the planet (at least every windowed-GUI client on every platform) stunk when it came to handling hundred to thousands of emails in a “folder”. Either because of directory limits in the OS, or limits in the file open APIs, or internal to the mail code, whatever. And whatever version of Outlook I was using at the time (pre-email virus epidemic), had the same issues. So the technical issues appealed greatly to my compartmentalization mindset.

I can’t even begin to imagine how much time I wasted doing this. And I remember trying to put emails in multiple buckets, because a single category just didn’t cut it sometimes. (I mean, some emails were “NT” “Novell” and “Mea Culpa”). But that got problematic to have so many duplicate copies, so I spent time creating new sub-buckets, or broadening the buckets (note the requisite “Misc.” and below “Organizational” are a bunch of “Other…” buckets). And then I’d want to get a timeline, so I’d copy the emails to another folder by month.

It was, in a word, no, two words, COMPLETELY INSANE.

I gave up up the categories sometime in 2000. It was just too much. I moved to time-based organization (usually Month-Year). Because I figured I could scan everything in a month faster than I could deal with the categories.

Now? I still have buckets that correspond to certain shared email accounts. But my archives are lumped together, sent, received, and all, into a folder per year. What has changed? One, my tolerance for the time it takes to organize things like this. And Two. Search.

Search changes everything.

When search is fast and has a modicum of intelligence about related terms (hell, just handling plurals). It changes the dynamic. I don’t need the buckets anymore. Decently written emails and subject lines (which could be another post entirely) — will lend themselves well to standard term searches. And they contain a wealth of contextual data (why do you think Google offers Gmail?). I’m now finally able just to group it all together and use search terms to find everything.

Search in email stunk in 1998. It’s better today (well, spotlight seriously needs help in Apple Mail so that I can easily do “sender = ‘foo’ AND body contains ‘bar’” — but that’s yet another post too).

And it will continue to get better. Add to that “tags” (which I don’t use in conjunction with my email yet) — which let me create ad-hoc, virtual groupings that don’t force a given email object into a single bucket to avoid duplication — tag groupings, which provide dynamic, contextual links between objects.

This is one of the places where technology really changes things. It takes on a brain-like ability to put everything in one big bucket, and build associative retrieval mechanisms — and search things faster than the hierarchical buckets could ever allow, and certainly reduce the time wasted on moving the items around from bucket to bucket and printing all those labels.