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Spam filter a career killer?

New software promises more order for your in-box, separating the critical messages from the "reply all" excesses. It could be an efficiency boon--or a political bomb.

A meeting reminder from the boss, a lascivious letter from a lover, or the daily tally from a fantasy football league: Which e-mail would you read first?

Programmers at a small software company say they have the answer and that it can help millions of workers cope with the growing spam menace. The software categorizes e-mail on a scale from one to 100, then sorts messages according to the recipient's behavior and preferences. Important notes with high scores float to the top of the in-box, while unwanted spam, newsletters and other banalities sink to the bottom.

San Francisco-based Banter plans to launch the software--now only available as part of a $75,000 suite of programs--later this year as a standalone product. Executives don't know how much they will charge for the e-mail application, and they are still conducting market research to find a catchier name than Banter Server for E-mail Productivity.

The software theoretically does what the brain attempts to do, by automating hundreds of mental calculations to create a list of priorities, without getting tripped up by human emotions, guilt or tired eyes. Banter secured a patent June 18 for the so-called natural language technology.

But Banter's product has sparked debate among industrial psychologists and human resource executives, who argue that the program--and a wave of other content-categorizing applications--could be a political guillotine for aspiring managers. They worry that the software, even if it helps workers slog through e-mail faster, could offend those who rank at the bottom of priority lists.

But Banter executives insist the concept is apolitical and inoffensive--a clever way to address the deluge of unwanted e-mail among American office workers. According to research firm Gartner, unnecessary e-mail costs the average American business with 10,000 employees about $16 million a year. Worldwide spam attacks have nearly quintupled in the last year, from about 1 million in June 2001 to almost 5 million this year, according to a report in early July from ISP filtering company Brightmail.

"Current methods of managing e-mail are insufficient to deal with the vast explosion of written communication, and people want smarter, adaptive mechanisms," said Yoram Nelken, chief technology officer of Banter. "Everyone needs help with e-mail, and that's what we're trying to give to people."

Learning your e-mail habits Banter's E-mail Productivity differs sharply from automatic routing functions of Outlook and other e-mail applications. Those programs allow people to click on icons and route e-mail from a specific person or with a specific subject line directly to the trash--wiping junk away before the recipient sees it.

Banter's software, by contrast, monitors people's e-mail habits--even without input from the person--and prioritizes mail so that the most important items rise to the top of the in-box and the chaff sinks. Items with low priority (from zero to about 20) fall to the bottom of the in-box so people don't see them when they first open their e-mail application. High-priority items (about 80 to 100) rise to the top. No e-mail necessarily gets sent to the trash bin.

The program monitors people's habits for a couple of weeks, quietly making decisions based on what it has "learned." A couple of weeks after installation, for example, the program might determine that a worker rarely responds to certain bulk e-mail from the human resources department, and so those e-mails would receive low-priority placement. In theory, the longer the software is in use, the more precise it becomes at prioritizing.

E-mail Productivity might give low importance to e-mail based on the number of exclamation points in the subject line or the number of times the word "Viagra" or "insurance" appears in text--clear indications of spam. People may also click on icons that say "low priority" or "high priority" to help the software understand their preferences more quickly.

Matt Schvimmer, a 32-year-old Banter product manager in San Francisco, is one of the few people who has used the software for several months. (Banter would not release an early copy of the program to CNET because executives say it is not ready for consumer use.) Schvimmer volunteered to be the "alpha guinea pig" because he felt he was wasting too much time sorting through roughly 150 e-mails in his in-box every morning.

"I used to spend typically half my day, from 8 o'clock to noon, just reading e-mails that I had to act on--service agreements and things," Schvimmer said. "I was skeptical that this would work--that anything could work."

As the software recorded which e-mails Schvimmer was deleting or responding to, it assigned priority. High marks went to e-mail from certain customers and from his counterpart in Banter's Israel office, as well as anything from colleagues that mentioned an "urgent" response was required. Low marks went to all mail from bulletin boards, subscriptions to CRM Today and other newsletters, personal e-mails about fantasy football, and anything not addressed directly to Schvimmer. (His pet peeve is nonurgent e-mail CC'ed to him.)

"It bubbles up the high-priority e-mail so that if something has immediate action required, I can read it first," Schvimmer said. "It has made my mornings a lot more organized."

Banter is one of dozens of technology companies--ranging from Microsoft to Silicon Valley start-ups--eager to sell products to spam-weary workers. Instant messenger providers, including Yahoo and AOL, are pushing IM to corporate users as a more efficient means of communication than e-mail; providers say IM seems more urgent and personal than bulk e-mails, and it doesn't clutter in-boxes.

Banter is also one of many companies focusing on the hot software niche known as content categorization. RuleSpace Contexion Services, for example, has a patent to categorize 75,000 Web sites per day, sorting them according to child-friendly preferences that parents can pick. Autonomy, Semio, Verity and Quiver also offer "taxonomy" software that automatically categorizes Internet content.

Efficiency boon or political bomb?
But Banter bills itself as the first categorization specialist to deal with a new and increasingly common form of junk e-mail known as "occupational spam."

Occupational spam is any e-mail from a co-worker or business colleague that isn't strictly necessary or urgent. It could be a calendar item to 1,000 workers informing them of the office picnic next week. It could be a bulk e-mail from the CEO about the success of the company's newest product or a recent earnings report. Or--the worst form of occupational spam, according to many recipients--it could be a "reply all" response that simply says, "Thanks!" or "I second that!"

Only 27 percent of all e-mail office workers receive in an average day demands their immediate attention, according to Gartner, and 34 percent of interoffice e-mail is useless. If a company could somehow purge occupational spam from its servers, it could boost time efficiency by 30 percent, estimated Gartner Research Director Neil MacDonald.

But whether a colleague's e-mail is junk is a touchy subject involving both office politics and time management elements. Because of that, many business experts are critical of Banter's concept.

Industrial psychologists say the product could send the wrong message--especially if co-workers or bosses found out their e-mail ranked as a low priority. And the software could be even more problematic outside of the relatively unemotional world of work: Would a spouse or mother take kindly to the idea that their prolific correspondences were automatically sinking to the bottom of the priority list?

Management professors also worry that the slightest bug in any categorization software could result in an urgent e-mail that gets improperly routed to the bottom of the in-box, causing a worker to miss a deadline or otherwise put a damper on his or her career prospects. They also note that savvy workers occasionally inflate the importance of a single e-mail for the sake of currying favor with a boss or new co-worker--regardless of whether the actual content is important.

"I realize it's very annoying to read about the hard-working custodian who has given 15 years of service, and now the company is having a wine and cheese reception July 23 for her," said Andrew DuBrin, a professor of management and industrial psychologist at the College of Business at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "But ignoring that e-mail, or even using the software in the first place, could be seen as a violation of a very important principle of office politics: Be nice to people.

"If you used this, you could be seen as someone who doesn't get out of the cubicle, doesn't smile at people or thank them. These are all important aspects of being a leader," DuBrin said. "You can't just relegate these messages to the bottom of your priority list."

Admittedly resentful of spam and its drag on time management, DuBrin said the software might work wonders for people who have little interest in climbing the company ladder or making friends with colleagues. But his advice to aspiring managers tempted to use such software was blunt: "It could come back to haunt you."

Others were not so dismissive. Tim Hatcher, an associate professor of human resources at the University of Louisville and author of a book on ethics and human resource development, said the software was no different than the subconscious or conscious categorizing that people do every day. He said whether Banter's software gains acceptance as a time management tool or gets shunned as a political bomb will depend on how companies introduce it.

"If the program is less than effectively and positively introduced into the organization or is seen as somehow clandestine or oddly out of the corporate norm, then no matter how well it works, most employees will avoid it," Hatcher said. "But if top management supports it, introduces it in an above-board and positive light...and there's been time for it to become part of the corporate culture, then it will be used."

But even if it's introduced effectively, Hatcher warned some workers to avoid the software--especially people who are extremely concerned about appearances and politics.

"For people tenuous in their jobs or new to a profession, I suggest that they avoid anything that might put them in a less than positive light with anyone who can impact their career--this includes content categorizing software," Hatcher said. "For others who are well-established in a job and already socialized into a career, I anticipate few negative repercussions with their use of the e-mail filter program, especially if it's an accepted part of the organization."