Clutter: the Academic Bogeyman?

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by Greyson Scudder

news editor

When asked about her experiences with Clutter, Emily Guntharp, a sophomore Psychology major, said “Last year, I had an organic quiz that I didn’t know about, because the email went to Clutter.” This is one of many stories of the Microsoft Outlook Clutter feature, released by the Office 365 Team on November 11, 2014, which automatically moves emails out of one’s inbox and into an obscured “Clutter” folder. So, what is this feature that seems to do nothing but steal emails?

When the feature was released, the Office 365 Team announced via Office Blogs that “Clutter learns from your actions to determine the messages you are likely to ignore. As less important messages arrive, they are automatically moved to the Clutter folder.” Following the release, universities both in the United States and abroad, such as the University of Iowa and University College London, began updating “Frequently Asked Questions” pages and posting “How-to” explanations for working with Clutter on their IT websites.

Clutter became a problem for universities because it moved important emails out of a users’ inboxes without any notification. This is troubling for students, because many emails sent to them, either en masse or individually, are critical. If they go ignored, it could lead to serious problems. Guntharp recalled her first experience with Clutter, saying “I didn’t like that it automatically turned on, because that’s what happened in organic,” referring to the quiz she had missed. How do you get closer to a real-life academic bogeyman than one which steals your emails in the night?

Not all consider Clutter to be a nuisance. “It’s a tool that Outlook offers, and it reacts to the emails you read and the ones you don’t,” said Stewie Overton, who works in Millsaps’ IT department. “It really is designed to make all your low-priority emails go to a separate box so you don’t see anything you don’t need to see.” The tool moves the emails to another folder called “Clutter” where they can be combed through at the leisure of the user without having to sort them out of their inbox. Guntharp further explained, “Clutter takes emails that are kind of like spam, and puts them into a folder so it’s not in your direct inbox,” allowing her to focus on emails that are more important to her. To quote from the Office 365 Team’s release exactly, “As less important messages arrive, they are automatically moved to the Clutter folder.” These emails are not being erased, or hidden, but simply moved to allow for a more efficient inbox.

Although it doesn’t get rid of emails in a permanent way, there is some trouble in that Clutter moves the emails at all. “When I figured out what happened,” Guntharp says regarding her discovery of the Organic quiz email Clutter had moved, “that’s when I started using it correctly.” This reveals what seems to be the biggest issue with the feature, which has nothing to do with Clutter itself: rather, it appears to be the fault of the user. Overton explains, “People don’t know how to use it,” when asked about the problems with Clutter. If a user, for example, always clicks on a newsletter that they don’t care for to get rid of the notification, Clutter marks that as a higher priority email and will not move it. In the same way, if a user leaves emails unread from senders that regularly provide important information, those emails may be moved without the user’s awareness. According to the Office 365 Team release, Clutter learns from your actions, and by training it, many of the issues with this program are avoided.

The question of Clutter and its usefulness is not a matter of programming, but a matter of its user. “It’s designed…so you don’t see anything you don’t need to see,” reiterates Overton. If the user takes time to acclimate themselves to the program, decide what is and is not important to them, and follows through on teaching their Clutter what those things are, it is a highly effective program. If not, it’s a tool better left off.

How to Set Up Clutter
1: Enable Clutter via the Outlook Web App options menu.
2: Train Clutter by marking emails as Clutter or moving them to the “Clutter” folder.
3: After Clutter becomes acclimated to the types of emails that are considered “low-priority,” it will begin automatically moving them.
4: Periodically check the “Clutter” folder to make sure nothing important was lost.

Image from: https://blogs.msdn.microsoft.com/ukhe/2015/12/03/outlook-2016-quick-start-guide/

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