Custom auto-reply in Gmail for grad students and secret lovers


An application to send custom auto responses in Gmail

Gmail’s Canned responses feature allows you to send fairly sophisticated customised auto-responses based on incoming mails.  First we have to draft different kinds of responses we would like to send and label them.  For example, being the party animal I am becoming, I’d want a mail like, “This sounds great, I am on my way” for any e-mail inviting me for a party.  I will create it and label “Party mail”.  I can then create a filter in Gmail to scan all my incoming mails based on senders, keywords in text, subject line, and an assortment of other features.  In this case, I would want search for words like “Pizza OR free food OR party”.  Once we specify the keywords we can instruct Gmail to send the “party mail” canned response to any mail that matches the search strategy.

Using a similar process we can create canned responses for other purposes.  For example, I can look for all mails from my advisor containing words like “deadline OR late OR finish” and automatically send response like, “Got swine flu: I have been instructed not to get in touch with any person or animal for the next 15 days”.  This can be set up in a jiffy.

Setting it up

Enable canned response: Login to Gmail and go to Settings>Labs and look for canned responses in the list.  Once you find it, click the “Enable” button and save the selection by going to the bottom of the page.

New canned response: Next, compose an email with any subject line and text you want.  You will now see a button called “Canned responses” near attach file button above the message box.  Click on it and select “new canned response”.  Give it an appropriate title.

Create filter: Go to the top of the inbox and you’ll see a “create filter” link next to search box on top.  Click on it and it will enable you to create a search strategy.  After defining the keywords, it will automatically ask you to create filter.  Click on it and it will have a box below called “send canned response”.  Select the appropriate response like “Party mail” or “Got swine flu”.  Make sure you define the keywords carefully, else your advisor may get a response saying you are on your way and a party invitation will get the response that you’ve got swine flu.

3 Tips for power users

Send this to anyone but…

You may want to send a mail asking people not to disturb you since you’re having a quiet evening with your girlfriend.  In case you do not want this to go to your wife you would want to mention “-wife” in the “from” section when you specify the keywords.  The minus sign will ensure that mails from your wife’s mail id do not get this response.   If you believe in being extra careful you may want to mention “-wife –mother in law” as keywords.  Grad students would want to filter out advisors as well.

Messages to a group

An extra careful secret lover may want to ensure that his wife or anyone related does not get the “do not disturb” response.  Unfortunately, Gmail does not allow us to filter messages based on a whole group of people, but there is a way around.  Create a group called “wife & related” from the contacts link.  Once you create a group, Gmail allows you to select all contacts of this group.  Once you select, you will find a link on the right saying “recent conversation”.  Click on “Any” under that and it will automatically generate the keyword for you to filter any message from any of them.  You will find the keyword on the search box on top.  You can then copy and paste it when you create a filter.

Meticulously choosing keywords

After my comprehensive exams I decided to take off for a week when I did not want to hear the word “work” or anything remotely related to it.  I wanted to create a filter that will meticulously choose keywords so that any mail with words like work, job, study, deadline or exam will automatically get a response saying “temporarily dead: reincarnation expected in one week”.  An online application called wordnet (www.wordnet.princeton.edu) can help us create a list of keywords based on the word of our interest.


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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