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Info-Overloaded? Maybe It's Time to Embrace the Miracle of Filters

August 19, 1996|DANIEL AKST

By now you're probably getting plenty of electronic mail--so much, in fact, that you may wish for a better way to control the flow.

For a while I was in this situation. Personal e-mail, incoming volume from Internet mailing lists and requests for all sorts of things from editors, readers and others had my mailbox overflowing. It got so I swore off electronic mailing lists, a major source of useful information on the Internet.

Finally, I embraced e-mail filtering, and if you're in a similar situation, you should consider doing likewise. We all filter our e-mail, simply by looking at the list of messages and deciding which to read first, which to read later and which to delete unopened. But what I'm talking about is software that does the job more efficiently, leaving you free to concentrate on the e-mail you need to see first.

E-mail filtering can seem miraculous once you get it set up. Effective filtering can shunt all e-mail from the Dickens mailing list, for instance, into a folder labeled Dickens, which you can look at once a day when you're feeling Dickensian. Filtering can intercept all e-mail from a persistent salesperson and redirect it into the trash.

Filtering can even respond to a request for your latest product brochure by sending out the brochure without any intervention on your part. Then it can forward the message to your regional sales rep and append the request to a file called liveones.txt, where you keep track of such inquiries.

Filtering is also good for running a mailing list. Let's say you publish a monthly electronic schedule of activities at your local church. A good filtering system can recognize messages from parishioners wanting to be added to the list, as well as messages from those who want to be deleted. Again, no human intervention should be required.

To intelligently filter your mail in this way, you'll need an e-mail program that is up to the job. For Internet e-mailers, one excellent choice is Pegasus (, which is powerful and, amazingly, free. It comes in Windows, DOS and Macintosh flavors. (You'll also need a PPP or SLIP connection to the Internet, the type now offered by most Internet access providers.)

For users of commercial online services such as America Online--or those with accounts at one or more online services as well as the Internet--E-Mail Connection, available at most software stores, should do the trick.

(A cautionary note: I was once a daily user of E-Mail Connection, which I found to be an excellent mail manager, but after a while it started crashing my system. ConnectSoft, which makes the program, has duplicated the problem but hasn't yet solved it. A spokesman--who finds that E-Mail Connection crashes his own machine!--says it is relatively rare, and the company is working on it. Meanwhile, caveat emptor.)

Since Pegasus for Windows is free, widely available and doesn't bring on the blue screen of death, I'll concentrate on it in explaining how filtering works. The principles are more or less the same no matter what software you use.

The key to e-mail filtering, and its central shortcoming as well, is that it is based on something specific about incoming mail that triggers an "action" you've predetermined as the fate of such messages.

In Pegasus, for instance, you pull down the menu item labeled File, select Mail Filtering Rules and choose Rules Applied When Folder Is Opened. At this point, you'll get a dialogue box asking you to choose whether you want to filter incoming mail based on the header (the "from" field, the "subject" field and so forth) or, more powerfully, based on some specific text in the header, the message itself or either.

Then it asks what text you want it to look for and, finally, what action you want the program to take in the face of a message that meets your criteria. The actions offered include Copy, Delete, Move, Add to List, Delete From List and a number of others.

Thus, if you prefer to keep e-mail from your ex-spouse from upsetting you during the business day, you could open up the filtering dialogue box and click the "From" field. Then supply your ex-spouse's address, The "action" field offers a drop-down box, from which you select "Move." Then a list of your Pegasus folders appears; you can select one from the list, or perhaps create a new one called Bile.

Voila. Now let's consider a more businesslike use for mail filtering. If you have customers send you e-mail with the subject line SENDINFO, you can have it trigger a response consisting of a general information text file. This file might list more detailed articles of interest, supplying a code number for each. The recipient could reply SEND 103 and get back article 103.

You get the picture. The key here is to recognize something invariable about the incoming mail you want to filter, or to ask everyone wanting a certain response or action to use a designated command, such as SUBSCRIBE.

Your filtering rules can be as sophisticated as you want to make them. Pegasus, for instance, will perform several operations on the same piece of e-mail and will search for wild cards, ranges and so forth. (In stringing together several actions, make sure any delete or move action is last.)

The downside, of course, is that such filtering can't recognize junk mail, since the sender, subject line and so forth are so variable. Thus, this stuff is still likely to get through. One option here, especially for users of America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe's Wow, which allow multiple e-mail identities, is to establish one address for public consumption, used for posting to newsgroups and the like, and another for private e-mail, which you should never use for public postings or commercial replies. It's kind of like an unlisted home phone number.

Daniel Akst welcomes messages at His World Wide Web page is at

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