The following joke is as politically incorrect as they come, but I need to quote it in order demonstrate my point (I apologize in advance):
Five Jews changed the way we look at things:
- Moses: The Law is everything
- Jesus: Love is everything
- Marx: Money is everything
- Freud: Sex is everything
- Then came Einstein: Everything is relative
That’s as far as the old joke goes. But, when it comes to the Filing vs. Searching debate, Google would add:
- Google: Search is everything
According to Google’s view of our desktops, there’s no reason to file anything; just use Google Desktop or Gmail’s search feature. Gmail does not allow emails to be filed in folders, and the whole service shouts the statement: “Google is so powerful, there’s no need to file anything any more.”
What is wrong with Google’s approach? The problem with searching your email using a powerful engine such as Google’s is that you find exactly what you’re looking for, or more correctly, exactly what you told the search engine you wanted to find. If you are looking for something very specific, you’ll find it. However, if you don’t quite know what you’re looking for, but you’ll know it when you see it — good luck! Search engines are only as good as the expression you feed into them — don’t expect them to supply you with loosely related results.
Let me demonstrate with an example. You’ve just delivered a made-to-order system to a customer. The customer is not happy about one of the features, and claims that it was not implemented according to the specification. Your first step is to investigate whether you are at fault, and if so, find out how the problem was introduced. You decide to retrieve all your correspondence with the customer about the said feature, and all internal correspondence with your engineering department regarding various aspects of it. However, your engineering department cares nothing about individual customers — they just need to know what you want built, and by when you need it. So none of the internal emails even mention the customer’s name. In fact, the marketing names of features are totally different from what the geek engineers call them, so there won’t be much in common between an email to the customer and a parallel email to engineering. You’d need to be quite clever to put together a query expression to give you all the relevant correspondence, and even then you’d have to run it a few times until you get it just right, and are sure that you haven’t missed anything.
Annoying problem. Easy solution, but it requires forward planning. As you send and receive messages, just tag each one with the customer’s name. The tag is independent of the actual contents of the message. The message might not even contain the name of the customer, but it will be correctly tagged. It’s a snip to locate the group of messages we’re interested in, and then narrow down the search by browsing. You see the results in context, which is another element missing from search engine results that just show you individual messages out of context.
Ladies and Gentlemen, you’ve been using this sort of tagging for years. You might be surprised to hear that tagging was not invented by the Web 2.0 folksonomy paradigm-synergizers. Most of us know it by another less sexy name: “Filing.” When you “file” a message or a document in a “folder”, you are just assigning it a tag, and declaring: “this item is related to this topic.”
Now I have to be honest and tell you that Google have not got it totally wrong regarding email. Gmail, albeit in keeping with the “thou shalt not file” directive, does allow you to “label” messages. However, the list of labels is non-hierarchical and therefore is less useful when you have tens of labels and don’t quite know what you’re looking for. On the other hand, traditional email programs have hierarchical folder structures, but they enforce exclusivity. You have to pick one folder in which to file your item or, if you prefer Web 2.0-speak, you have to pick one tag to assign to your item. Obviously, I do not see a good reason why the mechanism cannot be extended to allow an item to have mutliple tags (is this a clue to what’s in the next version of SpeedFiler?), which will increase your chances of finding it when you need to.
Let me do an “about turn” and say that Google are just being practical. They may be right: search seems the way to go. Why? Because people do not bother to classify their documents and messages when they create or receive them. This is for two reasons:
- Traditional tools don’t encourage us to classify items.
They require exclusive tags and/or they make it less than fun to navigate a deep hierarchy of folders.
- We find it difficult to make simple decisions.
“Where does this belong? In this folder or in that folder? Do I need to keep it? What do they want me to do? Heck, just leave it in the inbox — maybe it’ll go away.”