Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why E-Mail Is So Awkward

A month ago I learned that Internet e-mail is declining and more person-to-person notes are happening inside social media web sites than outside through Internet e-mail servers. This realization made me suddenly self-conscious about my own e-mail use. I started to ask myself whether I really needed Internet e-mail anymore.

The answer, of course, is that I do need Internet e-mail, but not for quite the same reasons that I had imagined when I started on this line of inquiry. Internet e-mail is essential for:

  • Proving you’re a real person so you can sign up for some web sites.
  • Password recovery when you forget your password at a web site.
  • Notifications of events that happen, for which you can take further action at a web site.
  • Updates from businesses you want to keep up with.
  • Inquiries from people who might want to buy your stuff, hire you, or do business with you.

My guess is that when you look at your own e-mail inbox, most of the important messages you get fall into one these categories. And if you look at e-mail this way, you can immediately see why e-mail is so awkward. The Internet e-mail standards and e-mail programs are designed for letters. That’s why it’s called e-mail, after all. Yet most actual letters, from one person to another, are sent within social network web sites, not through the open e-mail system. So here we have a system that’s designed to carry letters, and we’re using it for everything but.

Years ago, there was an effort to overhaul e-mail, and it didn’t get very far. The main thing we got out of that was a system of filters to allow us to ignore the worst kind of spam, the messages sent from machines controlled by criminal organizations to e-mail addresses chosen at random.

E-mail filters are an awkward add-on to a system that was originally designed not to need them. Yet they are the most important thing in the e-mail system, because the criminal element in unsolicited commercial e-mail generates more than 99 percent of all e-mail messages. Without spam filters, we basically wouldn’t have e-mail.

E-mail filters are awkward because in the e-mail system, we run things with the idea that the letter must get through, as if we’re running the new Pony Express. If we were to overhaul the e-mail system now, we would want to change that. We would put the filters at the heart of the system, make them part of the standard itself, not an add-on. We would de-emphasize the idea of a letter, since so few messages are actual letters. And we would end up with a communications system that is very different from the e-mail system we have now.