Death to folders!

Death to Folders

Folders are dead. I came to this conclusion a little while ago, although I didn’t realise it at the time.

Then in the current issue of The Economist they write about it here. And suddenly it all made sense. They’re right.

What do we use folders for on a computer (or directories for the *nix-ly inclined)? Well, to organise our stuff, no? Of course. But why do we want to organise stuff? Equally obvious: so we can find it later easily. For years we’ve used hi-tech to reproduce an idiom stretching back hundreds of years: a paper filing system.

Let me digress into Google’s GMail service for a moment: I’ve been using it for over a year, and I love it to bits. When I first started using it until a few weeks ago I blindly constructed the usual filing-system idiom using the tools they provide: labels and filters. Incoming messages would be scanned and automatically labeled, or I would manually attach labels to messages. Complex, multi-label stuff. A message relating to something I’d bought for the computer, say, would be tagged with “Computer”, “Shopping Order”, maybe “Hardware”, and so on. And I thus constructed myself the GMail equivalent of Folders.

Yet how did I use this system? Time and time again I did not find that critical email by browsing the labeled messages, looking for the one I was after. I found instead I’d tap a couple of words into the search box, say “scanner Dabs” and almost instantly up pops two or three messages one of which, almost always, is the one I wanted.

Yet it was a long time before I was ready to concede (or even realise) that all my labelling and filing was a complete waste of time! Why bother? The messages are so thoroughly indexed and search by Google that I was not using the labels.

So recently I bit the bullet and ditched them. I hang onto two or three labels for mailing lists (this does make sense: I like to browse mailing list messages all at the same time) but for almost everything else I’ve junked them. My email, thousands and thousands of messages, is now one huge flat blob of data inside GMail. And that’s better. Much better.

And I’m doing the same thing, again it crept up on me, on the PCs I use as well. No longer do I click madly around the numerous folders I created wondering if I put that letter under “Finance admin” or “Tax”. I just tap “tax March Mr Jones” into the Google (or Yahoo! or MS – whatever is your desktop search choice) search bar and up comes that letter I wrote to Mr Jones about the March deadline for tax.

It’s hard to let go of habits. The filing-system idiom feels so right. I’m comfortable with it. But I am beginning to accept that it’s no longer best for us. As the article in The Economist points out, huge and cheap storage along with increasingly smart index and search tools means it’s time to change.

Folders are dead. Hierarchical filing systems are dead. Welcome to the scary new world of big, flat data.

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