Google's decision to change the way Gmail gathers contacts is an acknowledgment that automation must be balanced by human oversight.
In a rare repudiation of automation -- the magnifier of Google's riches and the company's preferred solution to just about everything -- Google on Wednesday said that it has altered Gmail so that the online e-mail service no longer automatically adds the addresses of e-mail recipients to the sender's Gmail Contacts list.
"We've heard from some of you that Gmail's auto-added contacts can lead to too much address book clutter," said Benjamin Grol, a Google product manager engineer, in a blog post. "One of the advantages of automatically creating contacts is that all of the addresses you e-mail subsequently show up in auto-complete. We wanted to preserve this benefit while giving you the ability to have a clean, uncluttered contact list, and we've come up with a solution that's rolling out this week. It separates your contacts into two groups: 'My Contacts' and 'Suggested Contacts.'"
Google's concern about clutter also can be seen in its decision to join the Information Overload Research Group, a group of technology companies that aims to save workers from technology.
In truth, Google's decision to change the way Gmail gathers contacts isn't so much a repudiation of automation as an acknowledgment that automation must be balanced by human oversight. Gmail still auto-gathers e-mail addresses, but now they're just "Suggested Contacts." You, the user, now must now take a more active role in defining your social circle.
This minor change underscores a major problem with social computing. Social constructs like contact lists or friends lists defy description in the language of computer code. People have different relationships with those they communicate with and they're not always comfortable with the coarse categorization provided by typical automated systems. As most users of social networks will admit, not everyone on their friends list is a friend.
That's not to say automation isn't wonderful and necessary -- try scaling without it. But automation has its limits. Google and other e-mail providers have automated systems to prevent spammers from creating accounts to abuse. But spammers can defeat these systems often enough to continue spamming.
A more telling example comes from The New York Times, which reported Thursday that Seattle is pulling the plug on its automated public toilets due to drugs and prostitution -- social problems that these automated systems just couldn't handle. The article suggests that Portland, Ore., is considering hiring human attendants for its public toilets.
Perhaps in the future people will play a greater role in managing automated Web systems, too.
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