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]