It was around 4 a.m. Friday when Jonathan Kealing, bleary-eyed from an all-nighter with his 11-month-old daughter, first noticed the flood of emails into his inbox: from Groupon, the St. Louis Cardinals, to political campaign, to kids' store.
Tabs, where the coupons and other junk goes. Now, they were bursting into his main inbox, into his phone's lock screen, into his head. And they just kept coming.
An inadvertent bug had made Gmail's filters go haywire, rerouting messages in the way that users made bombarding people with holiday shopping pitches.
To Google spokesperson said the company expected to be fixed within the day – but not before exposing, ever so slightly, how little we understand about the machinery that helps us feel as if our lives are in control.
Google's Gmail is now 14 years old, and like most teenagers, it remains a mystery – a bundle of baffling algorithms hand-coded to impose order onto the Internet's endless chaos. Gmail's minimalist facade automated software for searching, spam-spotting, spell-checking, language translation and dozens of other abilities. Its latest, "Smart Compose," automatically fills in the next word en thinks you, the human, are going to say.
All of it comes together to power email, which is a scale of basic human utilities. So when, instead, a tiny error was found in some servers in one of Google's 15 sprawling data centers, one could not understand what had happened – or even who, or what, to blame.
A small fraction of Gmail's more than 1.4 billion worldwide users did you know? Had the holiday season overloaded the world's most popular email service? Or, more sinister, had the retail industry conspired to finally fool Google's junk-mail filters, kneecapping the algorithms once and for all?
No, to Google spokesperson says. It's just a bug, very rare but fixable. People first noticed en Thursday evening, and engineers on Friday were working to resolve the issue.
A spokesperson wrote in an email, "We are aware of an issue in Gmail, causing a promotional email to be incorrectly categorized.
It was already wriggled its way into the world's attention spans. "I am an insanely busy person," he wrote to user on the Google forums. "Glad I am not the one that broke it," wrote another user. "Somebody at Google is having a tough day."
For Kealing, 33, a self-described compulsive email organizer living in Minneapolis, it exposed to vulnerability: "When I'm getting emails from political parties and group-deal sites I signed up for 1,000 years ago, it kind of throws off your mojo, "he said.
So he deleted the messages – a consumer survey, a getaway package for an all-inclusive Mexican resort – and went on with his day. He had a few emails to send.