Predictive Ads…? Or Email Address Targeted Advertising…?!

As I get was getting increasingly annoyed by large flashing display ads in my feedreader this morning, the thought suddenly occurred to me: could Google serve me ads on third party sites based on my unread Gmail emails?

That is, as I check my feeds before my email in a morning, could I be seeing ads that foreshadow the content of the email I’ve been ignoring for way too long? Or could I receive ads that flag the content of my Priority Inbox messages?

Rules regarding sensitivity and privacy would have to be carefully thought through,m of course. Here’s how they currently stand regarding contextual ads delivered in Gmail (More on Gmail and privacy: Targeted ads in Gmail):

By offering Gmail users relevant ads and information related to the content of their messages, we aim to offer users a better webmail experience. For example, if you and your friends are planning a vacation, you may want to see news items or travel ads about the destination you’re considering.

To ensure a quality user experience for all Gmail users, we avoid showing ads reflecting sensitive or inappropriate content by only showing ads that have been classified as “Family-Safe.” We also avoid targeting ads to messages about catastrophic events or tragedies. [Google’s emphasis]

[See also: Ads in Gmail and your personal data Share Comment]

Not quite as future predictive as gDay™ with MATE™ that lets you “search tomorrow’s web today” and “[discover] content on the internet before it is created”, but almost…!

It’s also a step on the road to Eric Schmidt’s dream of providing you with results even before you search for them. (For a more recent interview, see Google’s Eric Schmidt predicts the future of computing – and he plans to be involved.)

Here’s another, more practical(?!) thought – suppose Google served me headers of Priority Inbox email messages that were also marked as urgent through Adwords ads, in a full-on attempt to try to attract my attention to “really important” messages?! “Flashmail” messages delivered through the Adwords network… (I can imagine at least one course manager who I suspect would try to contact me via ads when I don’t pick up my email! ;-)

Searching the internet of things may still be a little way off though….

PS thinking email address targeted ads (mailads?) through a bit more, here are a couple of ways of doing it that immediately come to mind. Suppose I want to target an ad at

1) Adwords could place that ad in my GMail sidebar; (I think they’d be unlikely to place ads within emails, even if clearly marked, because this approach has been hugely unpopular in the past (it also p****s me off in feeds ); that said, Google has apparently started experimenting with (image based) display ads in gmail;

2) Adwords could place the ad on a third party site if the Goog spots me via a cookie and sees I’m currently logged in to Google, for example, with the email address.

As Facebook gets into the universal messaging game, email address based ad targeting would also work there?

PPS interesting – the best ads act as content, so maybe ads could be used to deliver linked content? Twitter promoted tweets – the AdWords for live news?. Which reminds me, I need to work up my bid for using something like AdWords to deliver targeted educational content.

Email By Reference, Not By Value

Last week, I did a fair bit of driving around the UK (one of the reasons why this blog was quiet) which meant that I got a chance to catch-up with a backlog of unlistened to podcasts, in particular a whole set of presentations from my IT Conversations subscription. One episode that especially caught my attention was one of Jon Udell’s Interviews with Innovators (one of the best podcast series I know): Computational Thinking for Everyone, with Joan Peckham.

(For those of you who haven’t come across the idea of computational thinking, check out this earlier interview with Jeannette Wing, the blurb for which describes computational thinking as “ways of thinking and problem-solving that involve algorithms and data structures and levels of abstraction and refactoring [and that] aren’t just for computer scientists, they’re really for everybody”. See also: Computational Thinking, Communications of the ACM, March 2006/Vol. 49, No. 3 (PDF).)

One of the items that came up was the idea of passing by variables by reference, rather than by value. (If this means nothing to you, check out Pass by Reference vs. Pass by Value. [If you can find a simpler explanation, ideally as a CC licensed OER, please link to it in the comments below*.])

Now this by chance got me thinking about email, and the painful way people insist on mailing the same document to a cc list of recipients, and they all they reply with documents attached containing their comments on the original doc, and so on. Email used that way is passing by value. If a document is a variable, when we pass it as an attachment we pass it by value. So when a recipient changes the value, they have to return it (again by value) if they want the originator to see the changes they have made. They have to return it… More cc’ing, more attachments…

But instead, what if we pass a link (a reference) to a Google doc. In that case, anyone can change the doc, and everyone else sees the consequences of those changes. I add a comment to the doc, you can see it. And I didn’t havr to email the doc to you as an attachment. We were all passed a reference, and when any of us makes a change to the thing that was referenced, whenever anyone else looks at the doc, they see the changes I made. Passing by reference.

Wouldn’t it be much easier if we passed documents by reference, not by value?

And then came the next thought – the old, old idea I had about wikimail is actually all about passing the contents of the body of an email by reference, not by value. Long time readers may remember my wikimail (aka read/write email) ramblings from some time ago (and also this possiprobably broken wikimail GM script for GMail, but if not, here’s a recap: the body of the email is a wiki page.

That’s it.

When I send you an email, I write a wikipage and send it to you. When you open the email, you actually open on a wiki page; so you can reply to me by typing in the page and sending me a wikimail reply.

Thinking about the usability of that, maybe rather than getting a new reply message in my email box, I should get a blue flag ‘recently changed’ notification on the “original” email, rather than a red flag (unread) reply message in my inbox? Alternatively, keeping tabs on the ‘recent changes’ feed to a wikimail page I’d sent (or received) would alert me to ‘responses’. (These change alerts could be tweeted to me, maybe?)

And just as media wiki pages have a content tab and a discussion tab, I guess wikimail messages could have a similar split personality?

Anyway, anyway, when I got back home, I saw announcements all over the place to Google Wave. I don’t know if it’s anything like wikimail (I haven’t had a chance to look at the info/watch the movie at all yet), but if not, I think there’s still scope there for reinventing mail by reference, rather than by value…

* This suggests a strategy to me for releasing OERs: having somewhere where I can request a resource that addresses a particular topic. OER publishers can then use that list to provide information about what materials the community needs and what they are likely to reuse… In this case, I’d like a mini tutorial on pass by value vs. pass by reference, in the abstract (i.e. not tied to the syntax of a particular language).

Here’s something to be going on with:

(Bah, WordPress can’t decipher a predetermined start time – watch the video starting 4 mins 19 seconds in…)

PS for a thought provoking initial critique of Google Wave, see Tim O’Reilly’s Google Wave: What Might Email Look Like If It Were Invented Today?.