I first ran across Seriosity in a recent Wall Street Journal article. It was discussing companies dealing with ‘colleague spam’ or the problem of bacn in the workplace, where unimportant messages crowd out significant ones in your inbox. Unfortunately the article itself is subscription only, but after mentioning ClearContext and Xobni, they talk about Seriosity’s approach.
The heart of their method is a virtual currency, Serios, that you can spend to mark a message you send as important. Essentially, it’s a way of making the existing ‘important flag‘ more useful, by making it a scarce resource. The current flag doesn’t mean very much, because there’s no natural regulation of its use, so some people can mark all their messages as important, whilst others don’t use it at all. The Serios spent on a message determine how prominently it appears in the recipient’s mailboxes.
The currency system is based on studies of online games, with the recipients of messages receiving the Serios the sender spent on them, and everybody having a limited store of points to use. They’ve already done a test deployment of their product for Ebay’s internal email, with some positive quotes from the company on its usefulness but performance problems with the installed client, apparently fixed in a newer version.
I’m very happy to see something so innovative in its approach to this problem, but I do think they’ve got some significant hurdles to overcome.
For starters, I’m not convinced that colleague spam is amenable to any algorithmic solution. In the article, they use the example of a department email sent out announcing brownies in the kitchen. I like brownies! I wouldn’t want to miss out on that message when it came in, but I might not care if the same email was for carrot-cake. These sort of messages require some understanding of the content and its significance to the recipient to process. I would end up scanning the subject lines of all emails as they came in to make sure I didn’t lose a message I cared about.
On a practical level, game economies are really hard to design well, and the constraints there are only about making the experience enjoyable. For a work tool, there’s a lot of additional requirements. I’d imagine that the CEO wouldn’t want her occasional all-company messages to appear in people’s spam folders, so that would either require giving her a massive store of Serios (which would encourage inflation, and by extension require Serios to be allocated by seniority) or give her an opt-out like the existing important flag, which others would also want to use and abuse. There’s also a very unbalanced pattern of communication for certain workers who need to send out a lot of informative emails, without necessarily getting many back. For example, an office manager probably sends out a lot of all-building emails, some of which might be urgent, but which will be hard to allocate the right amount of currency to.
They do also mention the analysis of the currency flow as a way of charting how the organization actually works. That’s an idea that’s close to my own heart, since it lets you see the strength of ties between people who exchange a message, something I’m trying to do by analysing which emails are actually replied to.
Seriosity have obviously been working hard on this for the last couple of years, and it looks like they’re getting close to a public release of their Attent product. I look forward to playing with this in practice, since it appears they have an open beta program I can apply for. I would link to the demo, but unfortunately the supplied http://www.seriosity.com/demo.html url seems to be broken, though you can click on the ‘view demo’ link on this page to get to it.