Outlook Web App: “Clutter” or Just Clutter?

Written by Tim Haight

I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

April 8, 2014

Outlook Web AppBy Tim Haight

At the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) last week, Microsoft announced a bunch of new features for the Outlook Web App in Office 365. One of these, code-named “Clutter,” is making a noble attempt to deal with a problem we’ve all noticed, which I’ll call “semi-spam.”

Semi-spam are all those messages you get that you agreed to receive but that you usually don’t want. Here are some examples from my inbox: solicitations for money from various campaign committees, collections of whitepapers, lists of topics in LinkedIn groups, daily updates from newspapers, announcements of new features from my airline and mobile carrier, announcements of new books, new music, new clothes, appearances in the news by my LinkedIn contacts, newsletters, announcements of new events.  I could go on, and on, and…

If you’re like me, you could unsubscribe to a lot of this stuff, but you don’t. I don’t, because one time out of 10, one of these items actually says something interesting. So you tolerate a lot of “subscriptions,” but usually you just delete individual items. If you get a lot of mail, or if you let things go for a couple of days, the volume of this semi-spam can require some work to clean out.

Enter Microsoft and “Clutter.” Clutter is the code name for a new feature scheduled to appear some time this calendar year in the Outlook Web App in Office 365. “Clutter” is a filtering service based on the machine learning of Microsoft’s new Office Graph engine. Office Graph keeps track of your behavior with respect to things like messages, in-house social media and documents. It detects patterns in your usage which allow it to select things for you to see, and not see. In this case, it decides what to remove from your inbox because you habitually delete it.

Instead of having to wade through all that semi-spam, “Clutter” takes it out and leaves you with fewer, but more important, items in your inbox. Problem solved! Or is it?

There’s a nice post about “Clutter” on the Office Blogs. It has helpful screen shots, and it also discusses other interesting changes expected for Outlook Web App this year. It shows how you will have a “Clutter” button at the bottom of your inbox which will allow you to see all the mail they’ve taken out. You can run through it and mark any items as “Not Clutter.” Those will no longer be considered clutter. Then, you erase the whole clutter box with one click, so it’s ready for next time.

“Clutter,” Junk Mail, and Spam Filters

It sounded pretty good, and I’m looking forward to trying it. But then I got to thinking about Junk Mail, and, for that matter, the emails I get every day (Not Clutter) from my online spam protection. With “Clutter,” I presumably will now have three layers of filters protecting my inbox. How have I done with the two I have so far?

The way I’ve dealt with Junk Mail, that Outlook feature that filters stuff out of my inbox because it looks like spam, is to completely turn it off. This wasn’t easy. I had to work with my Exchange administrator to set the server so I could do that. But I’m glad I went to the trouble. I didn’t have a spam problem, after all. I have a very good spam filter in the cloud from Symantec. It keeps a high percentage of spam from reaching me, with a refreshingly low number of false positives. False positives, as you probably know, are messages you want that are mistakenly filtered out.

Left to its own devices, Junk Mail doesn’t just filter out spam. It filters out a lot of semi-spam, too. I’m not sure how it decides to do this. I do know, however, that a few months back it started filtering out a lot of really important emails, which is when I had to make it stop. Before that, I had mostly forgotten that Junk Mail was doing its mysterious work, so I wasn’t checking up on it. This resulted in some unhappy customers. I can’t allow that to happen.

When I discovered the problem, but before I was able to turn Junk Mail off, I had to check it every day. That was tedious. I’m glad it’s dead.

I also spend a certain amount of time each day reviewing the emails Symantec sends me, to see if they’ve mistakenly removed something. Their record is pretty good. I think I pull something out of their notices about once every three months. But I do spend a bit of time every day checking. Sometimes, that’s annoying, such as when I try to do it on my iPhone and the type is just too small.

So how good will “Clutter” be, and will that be enough to gain my trust? If I don’t trust it, will it save me any time? Instead of wading through one inbox (good mail plus clutter), I will now wade through two: good mail, and clutter. If I do trust it, will it sandbag me the way Junk Mail did, lulling me into not checking and then removing the crucial message?  I guess time will tell. Maybe the Office Graph will work really well. Or not.

But What About Beans?

At least Microsoft is taking a stab at the problem. I’ll give them credit for that. But I’m worried. Here are two old sayings that are the roots of my worries. Gregory Bateson once said, “One person’s order is another person’s muddle.” My wife’s grandmother once said, “You liked beans last night. You liked beans the night before. Why don’t you like beans tonight?”

Bateson’s comment makes me wonder whether my muddled inbox, as now constituted, with all its semi-spam, is really a fairly subtle ordering of my interests. What if I tolerate a lot of junk because now and then it matters? What if the appeal from the political group seems more relevant, in light of some event? I sort of like to watch them worry.

The beans quotation may be backwards. Maybe I hated beans last night and the night before, but now I want them. How is “Clutter” going to figure that out?

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