If email had a baby: notification messages

I’ve been noticing recently that a lot of my e-mail of late is notification related. I get a lot of e-mail from applications like Twitter and Facebook that falls into this category. “Someone added you as their friend”, “X is now following you”, “There is a new message in your Facebook inbox”, “A photo was uploaded with you in it”, etc… These messages can normally be expressed in a single line.

I often sort messages from different web services into their own folders. Here’s an example of how my Twitter “inbox” looked earlier today:

As you can see, each of these notification messages can be displayed on a single line. In fact, an entire summary of each e-mail message is expressed in the subject line.

The Big Idea

So here is my big idea: What if a notification e-mail message like this was formatted so that it would allow e-mail clients to handle them as a special case?

This would allow an e-mail client to have a special pane that would show recent notifications. You could also build rules that would do certain things when a site sent you a notification. Like download the photo you were last seen in to a special folder or display a small notification window (like a Growl notification) or forward the notification to you as an SMS message on your cell phone.

If the body of the e-mail contained a special part tailored for display you could even get a feed view that would look much like Facebook’s news feed… or perhaps your Twitter stream.

Probably the biggest win here in treating notification messages differently is that normal messages begin to take center stage again. Your inbox would no longer be filled with notifications from Twitter and Facebook. It would contain the real stuff you need to deal with for your work or personal life.

The possibilities here are mind boggling. This could change the way we communicate with each other.

All it would take would be for a major e-mail client like G-mail or Yahoo to start handling messages this way and promoting the concept.

The Technical Jargon

I’m not familiar enough with the e-mail spec to completely outline how this should be done, but I do have a couple of suggestions for how this could work in practice.

First of all, I’d suggest that web services begin marking notification messages with a special “X-Notification” e-mail header. The header could include information about whether the message required some action from the user or not. Other things that could possibly be included here would be flags that would be read by mail servers as the message is passed along that would determine the priority that it should be delivered. Lower-priority notifications would not need to be delivered immediately.

Secondly, I’d suggest that the subject of the message be treated as a one-line summary of the notification. Web services seem to be doing this already.

Thirdly, I’d also suggest that we add a new alternative part to a MIME encoded message that would contain the compact rich notification summary suitable for display in a feed of some kind (I’m thinking HTML here). The new part type is essential because it would allow messages to be displayed in the new format only if the e-mail client supported it, whereas older clients could continue to display them as normal e-mail messages.

So this is my big idea. What do you think?

© 2013 John W. Long