Would You Let Total Strangers Manage Your E-mail?

Categories: Tech

There are those groggy mornings, when you want to hit the snooze button three -- or six -- more times and probably wouldn't leave that soft, warm blanket if there were a fire down the hall from your bedroom. It is on those mornings when a peek at the e-mail inbox is most burdensome -- those 88 unread messages symbolizing all the shit you have to get up and do.

Of those 88 unread massages, most are junk, some are half-meaningless, some are useful, and only a few peppered among the bunch, require your attention. And the dreaded daily e-mail sort begins.

That never-ceasing wave of e-mails flooding inboxes is in the pantheon of first-world problems. People hate it enough that they're now willing to let strangers manage e-mails for them, according to a recent study by Stanford's Human-Computer Interaction group.

The researchers had 600 subjects use an app they developed called EmailValet, "an e-mail client that recruits remote assistants from an expert crowdsourcing marketplace." The "valet" approach was the key. Everyday people entrust strangers to park their cars. If you trust a random person with your keys under controlled circumstances, why not with your e-mails under controlled circumstances?

An initial survey of 600 people showed the obvious: Not many people are comfortable letting a stranger see their e-mail inbox. "Respondents expressed strong concerns about sharing their inbox with a crowdsourced assistant." Just 4 percent of them "were willing to share their entire inbox" and around a third "were only willing to share a few messages manually."

Over the weeklong study, 28 subjects used EmailValet. At the beginning of the study, 18 of them "felt somewhat uncomfortable entrusting an assistant with their e-mails."

The app allowed users to keep some types of e-mails private -- bank statements, stuff from significant others, etc. The rest of the e-mails remain in the inbox for someone on the other side of the Internet to sort through. That e-mail manager then turns the flood of e-mails into a concise to-do list: "Update Ludwig on TestFlight details," read one task in the sample inbox. "Reschedule meeting with Claude."

Researchers noticed that he subjects who used the assistant completed twice as many tasks as they had without EmailValet. Part of this stemmed from the assistants' precision in "extracting important tasks for users": the subjects accepted 71.6 percent of the tastes listed by the assistants.

More important, though, mindsets shifted. Of the 18 subjects who expressed initial concerns, 10 "reported that they felt more comfortable with the service over time" and "only 10 percent of participants cited privacy as a reason that someone might abandon EmailValet."

In a sense, the study presents how the Internet can democratize personal assistants the way it has democratized filing taxes, medical advice, buying stocks, music distribution, etc. "Online assistants may be affordable enough for most information workers to use in small amounts," the study stated. "Likewise, assistants can multiplex their services across multiple users."

Of course, e-mails made life more convenient, too. We can imagine where this might be going: waking up one morning to 14 unfulfilled tasks on your e-mail client, along with the shame of knowing that your anonymous online personal assistant knows how unproductive you've been.

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