Email is Dead – Part 1: Where is my email?

Email is wonderful. Email is finicky. Email is broken. If we don’t do something about it soon, email is dead.

I know what you’re saying. The death-knell for email has been tolling for quite some time. It survives because it is resilient. When it works properly, email is a great tool. When it doesn’t, it can be frustrating and costly.

If your life was in danger, would you trust email to deliver?

You see, the problem with email isn’t what people think.  It’s not spam.  It’s not regulation, or the lack of it. It’s not that there is too much email. The problem is that email that you really needed to receive, but did not arrive.

Once upon a time, email was simple. At its core, email is not a complex thing.  Bob writes and email addressed to george in his client.  The client passes the email to the server.  The server determines where to deliver the email and passes it to the receiving server.  The receiving server passes the message to George. Client, server, server, client. It’s not really that complex at all.

Things have changed.  The reason for this change actually didn’t start in email.  It started on USENET. USENET, for those unaware, is sort of like a big centralized forum, decentralized around the world. It had topics for most anyone’s needs. One day in 1994 an advertisement for legal services surrounding the United States Green Card Lottery began to appear on forums all around USENET.

In those days the Internet really was a sort of “Wild West” scenario. Commercial use had just been allowed on the Internet. How this would turn out was a big question. One annoying commercial ad, posted repeatedly on USENET groups, became the genesis of the concept, and the name, “spam.”

As you are no doubt aware, spam has spread.  While USENET has fallen to secondary status on today’s Internet, email has become the major battleground for spam.

It is a battle.  Laws have been passed.  Tools have been created.  There are experts all over the world whose job it is to analyze spam emails, and work out ways to stop them.

If only they could stop them all, right?  A few still make it through, but overall it works pretty well. It works, that is, if you’re looking at the rate of stopping junk.

The problem isn’t that it misses a spam email now and then.  The problem is that it stops ham emails.  Ham emails are the good ones.  Spam experts classify emails into “spam” (bad) and “ham” (good) categories. The goal of anti-spam tools is to stop as much spam as possible, leaving most or all of the ham in the inbox.  On that last point, they too often fail.

Failure in stopping spam is far more acceptable than failure in allowing good emails to pass.

Think about my earlier question.  Would you trust email to pass your message, if your life was on the line? As much as I love working in the email field, my answer is a resounding “no.”

Let me give you a reasonable scenario. Let’s say that I have my email from my primary domain routed through Gmail. Gmail offers this feature, so that I can use their system as the central email client for multiple email addresses. I forward my email to my gmail account, perform a few steps, and I’m done.  All my email can be sent and received from the same client.  If the wife sends me email to my primary address, it goes to Gmail.  If my boss writes me on my work account, it is in Gmail. Everything is in Gmail.  It works.

I go to a website I haven’t visited in a while.  To login, it asks me to reset my password.  I go through the steps.  The website sends an email to my primary address.  It doesn’t arrive.

I wait.  I check my spam folder.  I check “All Mail” for any sign.  The email simply never arrived.  I request another password reset email which also never arrives.  I’m locked out of the site.

The reason this is a reasonable scenario is because it’s exactly what happened to me multiple times, forcing me to pull away from Gmail as a client.  I don’t fault them. I fault what email has become.

Email is still a simple, elegant system at its core.  The problem is what we’ve added.  Blacklists, anti-spam software, anti-spam hardware, automated rules, and even some poorly-crafted laws.

Listen.  The LAST thing we need is a bunch of politicians writing the rules of communication. When it comes to email, they’re idiots.  I don’t even mean that to be an insult.  You can’t expect lawyers, doctors, accountants, exterminators, teachers, nurses, or businessmen to understand the intricacies of such a communications medium. You may have been Vice-President of a Fortune 500 company, but that doesn’t qualify you to define how communications on the Internet should be performed. This is why we have such a horrible piece of legislation as the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

The anti-spam businesses and organizations aren’t much better, but for different reasons. They actually ARE qualified. The problem is that there are too many, doing too many different things, in too many different ways, with no accountability.

I think of the anti-spam industry as a sort of mafia. In their neighborhood, the gang was law. The people of the neighborhood were safe and in some cases more prosperous because of the gangs. My wife tells of a story from College when she visited Europe and the group’s guide stopped off to pay the mafia bribe. The mafia’s representative informed the group, “No one will touch you.” They were the good guys in this scenario.  So are the anti-spam crusaders. They don’t have to tell you how they do it.  They don’t have to answer to anyone for it.  They just keep you safe.

The mafia, at least, would offer some compensation if their activities broke your window. Not so the anti-spam crusaders. It doesn’t work that way. It’s not their fault.

The problem is that email itself, as elegant as it may be, is not a core technology ripe for improvement.  It’s a box into which improvements must fit. To fix email, we don’t need to fix email.  We need to replace email with something new.

This something new has to have a set of standard rules that define it, and by which its success can be measured. What is the first, most-important rule we must define? What is the single thing we know we must have from an improved communications medium?

Rule #1

All desired communication should be accepted always.

It is that simple.  If I, as the recipient of a message, actually WANT to receive that message, I should be able to receive it.  I should not need to petition an admin to check the spam logs on the server.  I shouldn’t need to go hunting, call tech-support, or pull my hair out. I should simply receive those communications I want to receive.

By this definition, email is a failure in its current state.  It’s a shame, too.  It’s not email’s fault.

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