Islands, tagging, and an ocean-like inbox

ZzzI spent the (unexpectedly long) weekend on a small Cornish island nature reserve where my sister is assistant warden. Downtime is good, but now I’m very much back in action, with a long list of things to do and slightly more time to do it in.

One change I’ve just made to the way I work is that I’ve ditched Gmail in favour of Mozilla Thunderbird as my email interface. I’m still using Gmail’s servers (largely so I have a backup with a nice web interface that I can use when I don’t have my laptop), but using Thunderbird allows me to file mail how I want it. Gmail’s constant stream of messages with only the search box and labels as a filing mechanism just doesn’t work for me; I need more order.

This is an important lesson. Labels are effectively tags, and you can click on labels as if they were folders to get a filtered view, but I find for mail messages the folder metaphor works better for me. I’m disinclined to use the filtered views when I see unread mail in the main window, and as a result I have a horrible tendency to read mail, think I’ll come back to it later, and never look at it again. Thunderbird – or any software mail client – allows you to keep something in the inbox until you’ve dealt with it, and then file it away appropriately. That, for me, leads to a more efficient way of working.

Which isn’t to say that tags aren’t useful in this context; it’d be handy for me to be able to search across folders on the keyword ‘elgg’, for obvious reasons. I might have a folder for the development mailing list, another one for discussions with Dave, and so on, but there are likely times when I want to see all of these messages grouped together.

My thinking, then, is that tagging should sit alongside other sorting mechanisms, but generally isn’t enough as a replacement. That doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly started believing in top-down ontologies as dictated by institutions (except in very specific cases); I don’t. Users must control the way their data is stored. But part of this is for people to use the method that best suits them, and I think there’s room for many approaches.

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