David Weinberger goes to great lengths in his book, Everything Is Miscellaneous, to give various histories of how people have organized things. He covers everything from elements to books and photos to wedding dresses to show the great lengths we have gone through to force order onto the world(s) around us.

Weinberger tells us of three distinct orders of order that apply to whatever one happens to be organizing. The first order is organizing things themselves (plates on a shelf, spoons in a drawer), and the second is to create some file system to record how those things are organized (a card catalog in a library). The third order exists solely as a result of our digital culture. Now that we’re dealing with computer files and bits, information is not only easier to organize, but easier to find due to metadata and search functions.

While Weinberger gives the example of Flickr vs. a massive repository for physical photographs, I think a better example is the email inbox. As we’ve transitioned more into a digital world, many of the applications we use daily continue to reference their physical ancestors in name and in practice. In Microsoft Outlook, for example, we’re allowed to organize our email into a heiarchical folder structure to help make sure that our email is filed properly and easily retrievable at a moment’s notice. Surely this is an improvement on the old fashioned way of doing things where actual sheets of paper could get misplaced. With electronic mail, we simply create a rule and the digital mail gets sorted automatically into the digital folder. All I need to do is remember which digital folder to look in when I need that email again. The Future is Now!

However, that email system still fails where the paper system failed. If I had to find a document, I would have to remember the location and retrieve it myself. Not to mention the time it would take to organize that system to begin with. There is a very small step in between managing physical documents and traditional email. A leap needed to occur to fully embrace the freedom afforded by the digital. Enter Gmail’s insistance on search.

In a study published in late 2011, representatives of Microsoft and IBM reported that those who spend time organizing email according to folder structure are actually wasting time more time than their saving. Instead, they found that “those users who rely on tags, threaded conversations, and simply use search to find messages spend less time overall on refinding.” Furthermore, they discovered that “finding emails by searches took on average 17 seconds, versus 58 seconds finding the emails by folder. The likelihood of success – that is, finding the intended email – was no greater when it had been filed in a folder.”

As Google’s Gmail service has grown, it has depended more and more on Google’s main claim to fame – Search – as a central weapon. I no longer have to label and sort each email from my parents (although I still can using tags), I can just throw it in the figurative pile with my bills, letters from friends, etc. When I need to find the email that contained the important contact information for that meeting next week, I can search specifically for that data. To reflect the shifting attitudes towards this model, Apple and Microsoft recently updated their email applications with much more robust search features and Microsoft has even added color coding as a way of tagging by subject.

One area where the miscellaneous is still a present enemy is our contact list. As we move more into the digital realm, the tools at our disposal – and the freedoms they provide – cannot escape the reality of first and last names. Regardless of your email preferences, we’re still tied to the old formats of physical address books. We can’t just throw everyone we know into a pile and render relationships miscellaneous, which is something Google even admits with their Circles concept in Google+. Perhaps not everything is miscellaneous after all.

Advertisements