Thursday, April 26, 2007

I've Got Mail

26th August 2004 was a big day in my live. It was the day I opened my 1st GMail account :-)

GMail was launched on the 1st of April that year, As part of a fantastic promotion strategy, GMail was not open to all net-izans of the world, but only to a select few who received invites from existing GMail account holders. This generated unprecedented curiously, with everyone itching to have a 1GB mailbox, powered with Google’s unparalleled search capabilities, and a host of other features no other e-mail provider had ever dreamt of. By the beginning of August, some of my batchmates at B-school had acquired GMail ids, and other net-crazy students like me were bugging them incessantly, asking for GMail invites. I was personally interested in grabbing a GMail account as early as possible, as I wanted to possess the id "My first name" . But unfortunately, that was not to be. By the time I eventually got an invite from a batchmate, this id had been taken.

Once I had my GMail id, I was completely hooked to it. The interface, the speed, the search capability, the labels, everything was truly extra-ordinary. Soon, I embarked on a large scale migration from all my existing email accounts to GMail; sending my GMail id to all contacts, exporting all address books to GMail, changing the subscription for most of my Yahoo Groups to GMail etc. etc. Very soon, as the avalanche of Arbit Choudhury Fan Mails started descending on my GMail box, I realized that shifting to GMail was indeed a great idea, since archiving hundreds of fan mails would have been impossible in any other mailbox, given the fact that most other providers were only offering 5-10MB space at the time.

I still remember some of my friends having initial apprehensions about GMail, worrying about the fact that GMail would “read” their personal mails for placing “relevant text ads” beside the messages. GMail enthusiasts like me disregarded such notions as trivial trepidations of technology laggards. Any radically new concept always attracts its shares of skepticism, and GMail was no different.

Over the last 3 years, GMail has virtually reached the pedestal of the best e-mail service in the world. Though Yahoo Mail supposedly has more accounts, I believe this is due to the fact that it has been around for a considerably longer time than GMail. Apart from a few old timers who have been using legacy email services like Yahoo Mail and Hotmail for years, and a few others who have deep rooted apprehensions our the privacy of their mails, GMail has become the pre-eminent mail service of the times, liked by one and all. But like most other Google products, GMail too attracts it’s fair share of controversy, which I guess is due to the radically different way in which they go about doing their stuff at Google, as compared to their conventional counterparts.

In spite of it’s enormous popularity, very few people use GMail efficiently. Many people use GMail as an e-mail attic, dumping all their low importance mails in the GMail-box. Many others, even though they use GMail regularly, do not know how “Labels” work, and use labels just like they use “Folders” in other mailboxes. And then there are those who just don’t know how to organize their GMail box, and keep thousands of unread mails in their inboxes. This is akin to owning a King Size Mansion, but keeping it in a messy and unkempt state.

Ever since I began using GMail, I have tried to follow a few basic GMail manners, so that I can make more efficient use of my mailbox. These manners might not work for everyone, since each of us like to organize ourselves differently, but give a general idea about GMail etiquette.

1. Only keep those mails in the Inbox that require further action, and archive all other mails. This helps keep the inbox clean and uncluttered, highlighting the current action items, and relegating the rest to the background.

2. Do not archive any mail without a attaching appropriate label(s) to it. If you do so, it might forever get lost amidst thousands of other mails in the "All mail" folder, and you may never be able to track it. If the mail is not significant enough to deserve a full fledge label, use the label "Miscellaneous" :-)

3. Add a filter to all the "faltu" (insignificant) mails you receive from various yahoo groups and other subscriptions, "lebel" them appropriately, and make then "skip inbox", saving your Inbox from thousands of irrelevant “unread” mails.
The danger with keeping an unclean mailbox cluttered with many "faltu" mails is that one can easily miss out on an important mail amidst all the trash.
You can always visit the label periodically and check the mails.

4. If there is a “regular” mailer that you receive that has high importance, create a filter to attach a “Label” to it, but do not add the “skip inbox” condition. You can read the mail in the inbox, and then archive it. Creating a filter to attach a “Label” helps you avoid the repetitive task to attaching a label to a certain category of mails manually every time.

5. Periodically visit the “Sent” mails folder, and attach relevant labels to all the sent items.

6. Periodically peep into the “Spam” folder to check if any important mail has landed up over there. Sometimes, some important mails get filtered by the spam guard and end up in spam folder. Hence, it makes sense to periodically browse through the spam folder to check if any important mail is stuck there. Keep emptying the spam folder at frequent intervals, so that you do not have to browse through too many spam mails at one time.

7. Though not deleting any emails is a core GMail philosophy, it makes sense to delete mails that are of absolutely no present or future use. Having a King Size Mansion does not mean that you never throw out trash, does it? :-)

Many people reading this post might wonder why I am harping on the importance of labels, when you can search and dig out virtually anything in GMail. While searching for a keyword can help you locate all the mails containing the same, all the search results might not be relevant. For example, suppose you have a bank account in ABC bank, and they send you frequent mailers about their offers and your account transactions. If you just search for the keyword “ABC”, you will not only get the mails that came from the bank, but will also end up getting all the mails that you sent or received from other sources, that contained the keyword “ABC”. Locating the mails you received from the bank, will need you to either refine your search (which is difficult since most of us are not aware of the various "query words" that can be used to refine a GMail search), or sift through all the search results manually (which is a tedious and error prone task). This problem gets increasingly magnified as the number of mails containing the keyword increase. Hence, it is always better to organize mails into relevant labels, and then search for the appropriate keyword within the label.

Nikhil recently told me an ingenious technique used by him to organize his GMail. If there is an email which he wants to 'tag' (not label) with certain keywords, he sends a reply in that conversation to himself, with those keywords in it. This helps when one needs to find these emails later based on the 'tags' in addition to the words in that email.

I would like to invite all readers of this post to share some GMail manners they follow, as comments. It would be interesting to know the different ways in which different like to organize their mails.
Please note that the Gmail manners mentioned above should not be confused with Gmail Tools and Tips. A complete list of tips can be found here.

Before you begin to feel that I am a GMail Marketing employee, let am also mention something I don’t like about GMail. :-)
I for one, do not subscribe to their “Search, Don’t Sort” philosophy. At times, one would like to sort emails based on certain criteria, in order to draw certain conclusions. Here is an abstract example. Suppose you remember that a friend of yours sent to an MP3 file containing a beautiful song long time back. But you are either not able to remember the name of the friend, or have too many mails from that friend in your mailbox, and hence cannot locate that particular mail through the GMail search mechanism. If you have a “sort” option, you can sort all the mails in descending order of attachment size, and hence locate the mail containing the MP3 file, as it would be one of the larger mail attachments in your mailbox. While this example might not properly capture the problem I am trying to highlight, I feel it necessary to bring this out as I know a person who refused to shift from Yahoo Mail to GMail, due to the lack of sorting option in GMail.

I have just realized that this is one of the longest blog posts I have ever made. In case my GMail rant has got to your nerves, I end on a lighter note, with this old PJ from an Indian biscuit ad.

Reporter to a male college student:- “What do you think about e-mail?”
Male college student:- “E-mail is good, but fe-male is better !!”

P.S.:- Here is Nikhil's take on GMail Manners

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