Bad Advice: Editing Email Subject Lines

I’ve seen the same tip on a number of productivity sites and newsletters recently, and each time I see it, it grates on me. The most recent instance is in David Allen’s Productivity Principles email newsletter, although the same tip is described in Gina Trapani’s otherwise wonderful “Geek to Live: Train Others How to Use Email” article over at Lifehacker.

The tip is to edit email subject lines to more accurately reflect the contents of the email. The idea here is that just like good drivers have to deal with bad drivers on the road, good emailers need to deal with those that are not so good. One thing not so good emailers do is use meaningless subject lines – like the uniformly hated email subject, “Hi”. Good emailers know that a meaningful subject line helps everyone understand and deal with an email more quickly and accurately.

Here’s the problem. That tip gives a lot of short term benefit, at the expense of the medium and long term. One of the easiest ways to search for email related to the same thread is to search on the subject line. If the subject line has been changed, you’re not going to find the message you’re looking for. Worse, there are now some great products out there that specifically attempt to index against subject lines to ensure quick access to related messages. Changing the subject line breaks this functionality not only for you, but for anyone that you send a message to subsequently.

Gmail users understand this situation all too well; Gmail intelligently groups messages together that belong to the same thread, keeping the number of actual entries in your inbox lower by putting related messages together. This is a very advanced concept, and one I hope to see other email packages pick up on soon. As soon as someone changes the subject, a new thread is started in Gmail. Now you’ve got two groups of messages, and people could still potentially be replying to messages with the original subject line, making following the conversation extremely difficult.

If email was sufficiently advanced across all platforms to successfully and accurately track email threads regardless of the subject line, I’d say “change away”. Unfortunately, they simply are not. So, think twice before you go changing the subject line in a thread that is heavily trafficked; you could very well be throwing a spanner into somebody else’s system, if not your own. 

[tags] email, e-mail, subject line, Gmail, thread, conversation [/tags]

5 thoughts on “Bad Advice: Editing Email Subject Lines

  1. Dan Ridley

    E-mail is, indeed, sufficiently advanced across all platforms to track threads regardless of subject line; the In-Reply-To: header is virtually universal. The fact that a couple of clients (including Gmail) don’t yet display threads properly shouldn’t be enough to hold back subject editing. Besides, all the information required to properly thread messages is saved in the message headers, so all it would take is a Gmail update for Gmail to get this right, including retroactively for saved messages.

    I consider the poor threading in Gmail and to be bugs, and ones that will probably get fixed eventually, even if they’re not the highest priority. I’m not going to give up short-term benefits in order to realize a slight long-term gain that only applies against a fixable bug.

  2. Jason

    Hi Dan,

    I understand what you’re getting at, however Gmail and (and most other email clients) handle threading based on the subject line, rather than the proper way (i.e. using the “In-Reply-To:” header). What I’m talking about is practical for right now. Of course, as with anything, YMMV, but for me being able to track down a recent email related to something I’m currently working on is very important, and the same holds true for most of the people I work with. There’s just not enough short term gain from changing the subject to mitigate the damage done to to a thread for subsequent lookups.

  3. Jason

    And I don’t think I made this point clear enough in the original post; I think it’s actually inconsiderate to go changing subject lines on email threads without consulting the other people involved on the thread. It may not adversely affect you (and may help you, short term), but it may well be screwing up someone else’s system.

  4. Dan Ridley

    I see your points, but I still think you’re wrong :-)

    Even in software that doesn’t thread properly, it’s still faster for me to track down mail with a sensible subject line than mail with nonsensical subjects. I’d far rather see the threading get broken than to have the database proposal still sitting in “Re: apple pie recipe”, to use a real-life recent example.

    I guess I’d rate the accuracy of the subject line to be a much higher priority than proper threading, even if broken threading were both more prevalent and not retroactively fixable.

  5. wilson P.O.

    I think itâ??s actually inconsiderate to go changing subject lines on email threads without consulting the other people

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