I was an early user of Gmail. I don’t remember exactly when I signed up for the service, but I do know I was using it by September of 2005. It became my primary mail system in a relatively short span of time. There were four features that drew me into Gmail:

  • Its amazing anti-spam filters. Hooboy has this saved my sanity!

  • Its lightweight web-based UI.

  • Its large (for the time) storage allocations.

  • Its search functionality, which is (still) one of the best I’ve experienced in any system.

It’s the last two of these features that I want to delve into here.

Gmail isn’t just an email system; it’s a digital memory of my life. Shortly after I started using it, I imported the previous four years of mail into my account. As a result, I have a searchable email archive of the last eighteen years or so. This is an incredibly powerful thing to have at your disposal.

Email isn’t just about communicating with other people: We also receive confirmations for doctors appointments, bank statements, flight boarding passes, contracts, etc. Over time, these things add up to an important repository of information about your life. Something that may seem trivial now can be quite important in the future. Because you have so much space in Gmail, you don’t have to throw it out. And because Gmail’s search is so good, you don’t have to worry about categorizing it upfront.

Last night I was making a list of trips I’ve been on over the past few years. Compiling this list was relatively easy using Gmails advanced search: I used the before and after operators to define time windows​ and included the three-letter​ airport codes where I frequently fly from (SFO and OAK.) I completed what could’ve been a long, tedious task in a matter of minutes.

I particularly feel the power of my digital memory in its converse. Once I was trying to recall the exact date of an event that occurred prior to 2001. This proved surprisingly challenging. I’ve been paperless for the past decade or so (meaning I scan every important paper-based document that comes my way,) but I have few documents in my system from before this time. For stuff between 2001-2008, I can fall back on my Gmail archive. But I have scant information in my system before 2001. Searches return nothing. I looked for a long time among old paper-based archives for the date I needed, only to come up empty-handed.

Some people are very disciplined about keeping archives. I’ve gotten more so over the years, but have little to show for earlier parts of my life. For stuff in between, I can rely on Gmail as a digital memory; it seldom lets me down.