Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Mailing Archived Emails as Postcards: Probing the Value of Virtual Possessions

our (w/ David Gerritsen, Jennifer Olsen, Tatiana Vlahovic, Rebecca Gulotta, Will Odom, Jason Wiese, and John Zimmerman) CHI 2016 paper, in hopefully plain English

Ok, Gmail archives all your emails forever, right? There's probably some good stuff in there! Emails from people you care about, memories of good times, photos, conversations. But people don't see it as meaningful at all. OTOH, they do store a bunch of old physical photos and postcards. Why are those things valuable while emails aren't? More generally, why are physical possessions considered so much more valuable than virtual possessions?

That's why we set out on the study. Nope, hold up, that's not true. We set out on it because we (Dave, Jenny, Tati, and I) were young grad students doing a class project and we were given visions of turning it into a CHI paper, which would be a nice gold star to have on our resumes. Personally, I dove in because I was the biggest coder on the group, and I thought it'd be a fun little engineering challenge. (and it was! but that was about 1% of the project.) And a way to impress Tati with my skills. Like Napoleon Dynamite.

So. Virtual possessions, physical possessions. How about if we take those virtual things, those old emails, and turn them into physical things, like postcards? We can automatically sift through all our participants' old emails, pick out particularly meaningful (we think) snippets, print them on postcards, and mail them to them. Then they will probably think "oh yeah, that was a great old email" and rethink how valuable their old emails are. So we did that, over a 3 month period, and interviewed each participant 3 times, and our conclusion was:

Nope! They didn't really care at all. Most of the postcards, they just threw away. Oh well. But in talking to them, we realized a couple key things:

1. virtual possessions often lose value because they lack context. If you have an old photo, it's probably in your old photo album, next to other old photos. Or maybe a scrapbook, or a book of old good stuff you've saved. Your old emails? They're in a list with other (probably useless) emails. You can't really recall the whole memory just from a few words, and you've got nothing else around to help it.

2. virtual possessions are often useless because even the good ones are lost in a pile of trash! Your old emails are 1% wonderful conversations and 99% receipts from Amazon and ads from Bed Bath and Beyond. So you do this cognitive simplification by just considering it all junk. (It'd be a pain to try to remember or keep links to all the valuable stuff!) And even if you do find a couple good old emails, well... they're still there, if you need them, so what's the point of attaching any value to them?
Physical things don't have this problem: you throw out all your junk mail, so it no longer adds to clutter. But the blessing and the curse of email is that you can keep it all, forever.

So these insights might help you design more valuable virtual things, maybe!

Or maybe not! Maybe just say "eh we're saving your old emails for purely utilitarian reasons; we're not trying to replace your phone book too." Maybe virtual things will accrue value in completely different ways from physical things, and we just have to deal with it.

For more waffling and a fuller account of our adventures: our paper.

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