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SNARF Makes Social Sense of E-Mail

Your dog knows the difference between strangers and friends; shouldn't your e-mail client?

Microsoft Research thought so and developed the Social Network and Relationship Finder (SNARF) to help cope with heavy loads of e-mail. SNARF is an add-on to e-mail programs that filters and sorts e-mail based on the type of message and the user's history with an e-mail correspondent.

The process SNARF uses, based on a concept called social sorting, is dead simple: SNARF counts e-mails, sorts them by sender, and draws conclusions about their relative importance from how many times the two people have corresponded.

When it's first launched, SNARF indexes a user's e-mail archives, and then presents a three-paned view.

The top pane shows a list of people that have sent recent, unread e-mail addressed or copied. The middle pane includes people who have sent recent, unread e-mail addressed to anyone. And the bottom pane includes all people mentioned in any e-mail the user has received in the prior week. Users can change the types of messages displayed and sort them in different ways.

"By default, you see mail that's got your name on it," said Danyel Fisher, a researcher in Microsoft Research's community technology group. "When you're running to that meeting, what's important to take care of first are the things with your name on them."

Users can sort e-mail by sender and organize mail by threads and read the entire thread in chronological order from top to bottom -- as well as delete a thread with one click.

Glancing at the thread view makes it easy to separate wheat from chaff in e-mail discussion lists. The interface displays the thread structure for easier differentiation, as people begin to wander off-topic. Threads to which someone has contributed more will show up higher in the interface.

SNARF grew out of Microsoft Research's exploration of how people deal with increasingly large volumes of e-mail. An internal survey last summer found that people who dealt with e-mail messages the first time they opened them felt less frustrated and overwhelmed than those who constantly combed through their archives.

The team, which includes A.J. Brush, Andy Jacobs, Carman Neustaedter, Marc Smith, Paul Johns and Tom Lento, said SNARF can unbury important e-mails and help triage unread messages.

The application also has an awareness component. If left open, it alerts the user when a new message comes in and also tells who it's from.

SNARF has been tested by Microsoft personnel, and now a beta version is available for free download.

Microsoft is building a new Web mail system from the ground up, and this week it released a beta on its Windows Live site. Fisher said SNARF technology was not part of that beta, but that the teams are looking at how it could be incorporated into future versions of Outlook or Windows Live.

"In some sense, SNARF is a sketch meant to draw out some interesting aspects to our interaction with e-mail," Fisher said. "It's not completely resolved as to what will be done with it -- whether there might be future generations or different sketches."