(Cross-posted from http://evilbrainjono.net)

I wrote a Thunderbird add-on to make the email interface I’ve always wanted — one that helps me remember to stay in touch with people I really care about, instead of always distracting me with the newest incoming trivia.

The add-on is called Lovebird and you can download it here.

lovebird screenshot (with fake names)

the names in this screenshot have been changed to protect the innocent

The rest of this post is about the philosophy behind Lovebird and why I designed it the way I did.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about how much I hate email. I was frustrated that the few relevant messages from people I care about quickly get buried under a flood of distractions and nonsense. Not spam, even; just trivia.

There’s a saying that “Life consists of what you choose to pay attention to.”

Software encodes values, biases, assumptions, often unconscious, of the people who create it. The more that software becomes our filter on the world, the more that the unconscious biases of the software determine what we pay attention to.

There’s one bias that’s so prevalent it’s invisible – noticing it is like a fish noticing the water. It’s the assumption that the newest thing goes on top.

Twitter! Newest thing on top. News website! Newest thing on top. Blogs! Newest thing on top. Email! Newest thing on top. RSS feeds! Aggregators! What’s new! what just happened now? I don’t care about that thing it’s so 20 minutes ago, get that off the front page.

The newest thing usually isn’t the most important. It’s usually a distraction from what’s most important. Obsessive focus on the newest thing is a sickness in our culture. Not just the culture of software developers, but modern 21st century culture as a whole. Software didn’t create distraction, but its bias towards showing you the newest thing is contributing to the constant distraction of modern life.

If life consists of what you choose to pay attention to; and what you pay attention to is increasingly not a choice you make consciously but is dictated by the software lens that you see the world through; then you are giving up control over the contents of your life to decisions made by that software.

And if the software is always focusing your attention on the newest thing just because it’s newest, then you’re allowing what your life consists of to be decided by who’s noisiest.

Does that horrify you? It horrifies me.

Meanwhile, the stuff you don’t pay attention to gets pushed out of your life.

Nurses who work with end-of-life care say that one of the most common regrets expressed by people who are dying is that they didn’t do a better job of staying in touch with old friends and distant family while they still had the chance.

Email is the way I talk to more people more often than any other technology — more than telephone, more than face-to-face contact.

My email interface should be helping me remember to stay in touch with old friends and distant family. But instead, email buries the important conversations under a flood of auto-generated GitHub and eBay notifications, political mailing list ACTION ALERTS, charities begging for money, etc. etc.

Maybe I opened my email interface with a thought in mind about what email I wanted to write. But my thought is soon lost as the interface bombards me with distractions — all the newest, unread stuff.

Meanwhile that thoughtful, in-depth conversation from an friend I haven’t seen in years is down on the third or fourth page. I didn’t respond right away because it deserved a considered, crafted response. I starred it, sure, but… I guess I star a lot of things, most of which rapidly lose their relevance.

Unless I make a concerted effort, that conversation’s going to get buried forever and I’m gonna forget about it. Now I’m gonna die with regrets because my email interface focuses my attention on what’s new instead of what’s important!

So I decided to do something about it. I started hacking around with an idea for an email client that would put that conversation with the old friend front and center of my interface, keeping it in my attention.

I built it as a Thunderbird add-on. Since its purpose is to help me stay in touch with the people I love, I named it “Lovebird”.

Since it’s people I care about, not messages, the Lovebird UI is built around a list of people, not a list of emails.

Everybody thinks they have the right to take up space in my inbox, but not everybody gets in to the Lovebird interface. It’s a privilege, not a right. No mailing list or notification-bot should ever be allowed in the Lovebird list. Humans only.

And you only get there if I explicitly add you. I don’t want my computer trying to be too smart and guessing who should go in the Lovebird list. That creates the wrong kind of feedback loop.

For everyone else, I can still check my inbox. Lovebird isn’t meant to replace the inbox entirely.

I can have Lovebird sort my list of people in a couple different ways, none of which are based on putting the newest stuff on top. The default sort order shows me who’s been waiting the longest for me to respond to a conversation. Whatever I’ve been procrastinating about writing becomes the top item in my interface. Hopefully this will make it harder for me to forget to answer people.

I can also have it show me who I haven’t talked to in the longest time, even if they’re not expecting a response from me. Maybe I just want to reach out to them and ask about their lives.

I’ve been hacking on Lovebird, on and off, for the past couple of months. If you’ve read an email from me lately, I probably sent it to you from Lovebird.

Now you can try it out! I’ve uploaded a beta version to Addons.mozilla.com. It’s still missing some intended features, but it’s about ready for people to try.

The source code is on GitHub. That’s also where you can report any bugs that you find.