E-mail anger meter gets sensitivity training

New version of ToneCheck, a "spell-checker" for sentiment, gets improved, thanks to other users' angry e-mails.

Lymbix is releasing a more accurate version of its e-mail sentiment analysis app, ToneCheck, today. If you're an Outlook user and haven't checked out this service, give it a whirl. It's one of the more interesting Outlook plug-ins.

ToneCheck monitors your e-mail's composing window for potential errors of tone, just as spell-check scans for errors of spelling or grammar. The plug-in will tell you if there are sentences in a message that are likely to come across as aggressive, or likely to cause the recipient to feel sad, or fearful, or humiliated.

If ruining someone's day is what you want, though, ToneCheck won't actually change anything for you. Nor does it attempt to rewrite your messages. It just alerts you to the potentially troublesome emotional backlash you may be setting yourself up for.

The Outlook plug-in is easy to use and unobtrusive. A little meter stays out of the way, only blushing red with a "Tone Alert" when your message goes off the rails. When you click through, It tells you how, flagging sentences with words like "Concerning," or "Upsetting."

ToneCheck does a good, but not great, job of flagging potentially upsetting sentences in Outlook e-mails. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

You get the chance to correct your tone before HR gets wise to you. And make no mistake, the HR department and other corporate overseers are the intended customers for this service. While the individual plug-in is free and kind of sick fun for a while, Lymbix's goal is to sell corporate versions of this app, as well as API access to its service, to businesses and development shops that support them. The idea is to bake this engine into CRM and other outbound messaging systems. The API is also being used, currently, to add outbound sentiment scanning to Twitter via the HootSuite enterprise Twitter management system.

The free app, in addition to being a useful tool for individuals, also serves Lymbix by feeding its database. The ToneCheck service operates in the cloud, and the more e-mail messages the company has, the more tightly it can tune its algorithms. (A surprising tidbit from the company's research: Regional differences account for only about a 5 percent difference in how tone is perceived. I would have thought that you could get away with a lot more hostility if you were a brusque New York business guy than a genteel shop owner in Alabama, but, as you are no doubt about to tell me in comments, stereotypes based on place of business don't make that big a difference.)

Another thing the company does to keep its ToneCheck algorithms always improving: It employs an online panel at its ToneADay site, where users can earn money (not a ton, though) for accurately tagging the emotional content of sentences that they're given. Again, these sentences come from the free ToneCheck users.

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I found the accuracy of ToneCheck good, but not great. In some test messages, it overflagged sentences as concerning. Others it missed. And there's no way, from the plug-in interface, to tell the system to ignore a given flagged word or exclude a turn of phrase from future scans.

ToneCheck also doesn't scan incoming messages. It doesn't, yet, have the capability of a system like the call routing service Exaudios , which can identify the angriest inbound telephone communication and route it to a company's best fixer. Such a feature may come in the future, CTO Josh Merchant told me.

Also coming this year: A version for Lotus Notes installations. The company is working on a Gmail/Google Apps version as well, but Google apparently doesn't have the necessary APIs just yet. Future feature improvements include even more sensitive filters, for tones like passive-aggressiveness and sarcasm, which, Merchant says, the system doesn't yet scan for. Other tweaks may include an algorithm that's sensitive to your social graph, cutting you emotional leeway with friends and family perhaps.

The new free version of ToneCheck launches this morning.

 

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