The Gmail "Promotions" bug reveals an algorithmic mystery


It was about 4 am on Friday when Jonathan Kealing, with the blurry eyes of a four-month night with his 11-month-old daughter, noticed for the first time the flow of e-mails in his inbox: from Groupon, i St. Louis Cardinals, a political campaign, a shop for children.

They were messages that Gmail had for years dragged diligently, silently into his "Promotions" tab, where the coupons and other junk goes. Now, they were bursting into his main mailbox, on the lock screen of his phone, in his head. And they kept coming.

Google said Friday that an inadvertent error made its email filters go haywire, redirecting the messages in a way that made users think they had lost their judgment about which messages they deserved to land on top of the stack – and in the worst moment of the year, when companies are bombarding people with holiday shopping fields.

Google said it expected the bug to be resolved within the day – but not before exposing, albeit slightly, how little we know about the mechanism that makes us feel like our lives are in control.

Google's Gmail is now 14 years old and, like most teenagers, it remains a mystery: a set of disconcerting algorithms manually coded to impose order in the endless Internet chaos. The minimalist facade of Gmail masks an automated software for searching, spotting-spam, spell checking, language translation and dozens of other skills. His latest, "Smart Compose", automatically fills the next word that thinks you, the human, are about to say.

Everything comes together to enhance e-mail, which is not far from electricity on a basic scale of human utilities. So when, instead, a small error was encoded in some computer files on a server in one of the 15 sprawling data centers of Google, running at all hours from protected complexes around the world, nobody could figure out what had happened – or even who, or what, to blame.

A small part of the more than 1.4 billion Gmail users worldwide have asked questions on the Internet: have some settings been changed or some obscure algorithm altered to change what was important and what was not? Did the holiday season overload the most popular e-mail service in the world? Or, more sinisterly, the retail industry had conspired to deceive Google's junk mail filters permanently, deceiving the algorithms once and for all?

No, a Google representative says. It's just a bug, very rare but resolvable. People noticed it for the first time on Thursday night and Google engineers said Friday they would roll back the code, reporting the code to a point before the bug, which would be completed in the afternoon.

"We are aware of a problem in Gmail that causes the incorrect classification of some promotional emails," a spokesperson wrote in an email.

At that point, he had already made his way through the corners of the world's attention. "I'm madly busy these days and the worst that can happen to me is to be distracted," wrote a user on Google forums. "I'm glad I'm not the one who broke it," wrote another user. "Someone in Google is having a hard day."

For Kealing, 33, a self-described compulsive email organizer who lives in Minneapolis, exposed a vulnerability: "When I receive emails from political parties and group sites I signed for 1,000 years ago, this kind of throw away your mojo, "he said.

So he deleted the messages – a consumer survey, a departure package for an all-inclusive Mexican resort – and went on with his day. He had some e-mails to send.


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