We Now Bring You an Urgent Tone Alert

ImageDon't get me wrong: I believe that sometime soon, having an app to check the tone of your outgoing e-mail the way spell-check vets your spelling will be de rigueur. It's distinctly possible that Lymbix Inc.'s ToneCheck, now in beta, will be that application.

Simply download the program and every time you send an e-mail containing "emotionally-charged" language (in the program's own gratuitously punctuated parlance), you'll see a "tone alert." This explains which phrases set off alarm bells, indicates why with a one-word emotion, and gives you the option to revise or ignore. You can even tell the software which words to give a free pass.

It was a niche waiting to be filled, given the wealth of intemperate, splenetic and/or excessively arch business e-mails flying about.

Until the program's promised new iteration is in place, though, you'll have to assess the potential impact of your missives the old-fashioned way: by reading them over yourself or asking someone else to tell you if you come off, say, a tad snarky, vitriolic, inappropriately flirtatious, glowing with radioactive rage or ... um ... sad.

Yes, sad. ToneCheck beta views the world through blue-tinted shades; alas, it spots sorrow everywhere — no phrase is too innocuous for the designation. Heaven help anyone who begins a sentence with "unfortunately," for example; the outgoing note in which it appears will be detained at the virtual border, the phrase in question tagged with a frowny face.

Is sounding sad really an issue in the office? Isn't the point of these filters to avoid an impertinent, impatient, sarcastic or otherwise contentious tone that might sour the team spirit allegedly so vital to a productive workplace? Does anyone care if your e-mails sound sad? It's all so emo. (Of course, if your colleagues are monitoring you for suicidal ideation, an effective measurement of your sadness might be in order. To serve that purpose ToneCheck will need some fine-tuning.)

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Sounding angry is another matter. But context is absent in the version I used, so an obviously playful remark containing the word "outraged" was flagged as "angry." Which brings me to the salient issue: ToneCheck currently evinces no feel whatsoever for how words signify within sentences, only for the generic emotional "value" they retain on their own.

It reminds me of the time my friend's little brother burst into the room, probably interrupting our conversation about Trout Mask Replica or Chuck Statler's Devo films, to declare, "SOMEBODY GOT MURDERED FROM THE CLASH!" We knew immediately that neither Joe Strummer nor any of his bandmates had been slain; kid brother had just heard the Clash's song "Somebody Got Murdered" back-announced by a KROQ DJ. ToneCheck is like that excitable boy, unable to infer the context beyond a word's talismanic powers and prone to freak out at innocent pronouncements like, "I'd kill for some pancakes."

Yet, and also like a child, it has no sense of how subtle digs and passive-aggressive seething, which contribute to more insidious scenarios of workaday strife than do crazy blow-ups (in the latter instance one can at least plead temporary deadline-related insanity). This beta app is looking for bombers overhead, but most of the damage inflicted via e-mail is done with a shiv. I wrote myself an extremely rude message that hinted strongly of physical intimidation, and it flew from my computer like a falcon from a glove. Why? Because the taunting "eat me" it hurled doesn't signify anger to ToneCheck's algorithms; it may as well have been the "eat me" in Alice in Wonderland.

ImageIt's possible that this technology will transform our thinking about how machines can help us communicate more sensitively. Lymbix insists ToneCheck improves with use, which I take to mean it learns its user. I've not yet had time to test that theory and at this point would not entrust the program to guard the sanctum of my reputation.

But here's one thing ToneCheck nails: It stops your note on the way out and simply asks, "Are you sure?" In this regard it's like a thoughtful spouse who, before you leave for a job interview, suggests that your pleather toreador jacket may not be the way to go. THIS function of ToneCheck is the most vital of all. Even if it can't yet read nuance in your communication, it can force you to take that breath you so desperately need.

What's more, I believe ToneCheck WILL be a significantly more formidable beast in its next incarnation. If not, well, I'll be sad.