liz writes stuff down
14May/16Off

Inbox by Gmail’s accidentally abusive algorithm

The modern world really loves to use little algorithms here and there to help us speed things up. Inbox by Gmail is no exception.

Inbox has a concept of "speed dial" - an algorithmically determined set of "frequent" contacts that appears when hovering over the compose button:
Speel dial shows up on the right when hovering over the button for composing a message

In theory, this is great. It was really handy when it picked my fiancé, my mom, and a close friend. At some point, my own email replaced my close friend's because there were a lot of times when it was easier to email myself a bunch of notes than create line item reminders out of them. Still immensely convenient.

Later, Inbox decided to switch my mom out for someone else. This someone else had been emailing me a lot, though I think my mom had still been emailing me more. Occasionally, I'd reply when I was obliged to, but I was definitely sending more emails to my mother. Whatever the specifics, the algorithm replaced my mom with him.

What Inbox didn't know was that this person had been harassing me.

No amount of additional emails to my mom would put her back in speed dial and kick him out. I poked around in settings, hoping to find a way to pick my own speed dial contacts or a reset button, but I found none. An obscure post from 2014 on the Gmail Help Forum told me I could delete my contact to remove him from speed dial, but this only worked for the web version. It didn't remove him from Inbox on my iPhone, and I could only get him out there by uninstalling and reinstalling the Inbox app.

These aren't good solutions. Fortunately, his email address easily identifies him so I didn't mind deleting the contact info that tied his name to it, but had he had something more reminiscent of early 2000s AOL addresses, I might have needed to rely on that contact information. The energy it took to find these roundabout solutions and time I continued to have him in speed dial before finding those solutions kept reminding me of how he didn't respect my boundaries. The speed dial algorithm was hurting me instead of helping me out.

I don't think we should eliminate handy tools like this; most of the time, I'm a big fan. But I do wish that there were always easy to find manual overrides - or at least an easy to find kill switch - for algorithmically generated content so that we can minimize their inadvertent accidental cruelty (content warning: loss of a loved one).

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