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The RoBlog
Saturday, October 04, 2003
Email is Dead
This is the prelude to what will likely be a longer entry later (I have it mostly written, but there's the bothersome editing to do so that it actually looks like a reasonable flow of ideas rather than a random mish-mash of topics), and it has to do with the repeated statement that email is dead that I keep seeing everywhere.

First off, let me state that I do think that email is suffering for many reasons (the glut of spam being the primary one) both as a communication medium, and as a marketing tool (for legitimate, opt-in marketers).

BUT, I think it's really too early to say that email is now useless and alternatives must be found. To say that underestimates the huge value that email provides, and the fact that, as yet, there really isn't a functional replacement for it. Email is not the same as a phone call (even voicemail) at the very least because it provides a paper trail, not to mention the fact that it is a one to many medium, which the phone system is not, or that it allows a good many of us who are not the best on-our-feet-responders time to compose sensible responses to things. Instant messaging isn't there either. IM is, more or less, a real-time medium, and, again, is a one-to-one medium (yes, you can IM muliple people at the same time, which makes it excellent for certain kinds of collaboration, but does not make it a replacement for email). Finally, RSS isn't the same things either (RSS will be the focus of the larger entry I mentioned above); it is a possible replacement for certain kinds of publication models, but, as it currently stands, it isn't a one-to-one communication mechanism, which email is on top of its one-to-many capabilities (ok, it's primarily one-to-one rather than one-to-many, but I don't think that changes the discussion substantially).

It was therefore with some satisfaction that I'm reading Dave Crocker's comments in a Salon Article titled 'Email is Broken'. In his first quoted response, he mentions that email is indeed experiencing trouble, but that there is a difference between people being fed up with something and people doing something about it (namely, abandoning it).

It's also nice to see Brad Templeton's response to the legislation question. There are laws on the books that tackle the same problems raised by many kinds of spam (fraud, specifically). Beyond that, it's my opinion that legislation, while it may have it's place, is just flat not going to stop the problem of spam. A good deal of the spammers are now offshore, or are at least using servers that are outside of the US. The real solution has to be a change in the way that email works. Dave Crocker mentioned email authentication techniques, saying that they handn't gained popularity enough to make them effective. I wasn't able to get the link referenced in that statement to work, but if he's talking about identification certificates issued by some trused authority, then he's talking about the method I support most. It's true that it is not pervasive enough yet to be a workable solution, but if the pressure is there to solve the problem of email in SOME way, then this way is as good as any.

As I said, I couldn't follow the included link, and, frankly, I haven't followed any initiatives concerning this, but it's my opinion that if there was a standard way to identify an email sender with a good degree of certainty, this would be the answer to the spam problem. Imagine if your email box only listed emails that had a valid certificate. Sure spammers could probably get a valid certificate (though I'm guessing some integration with state DMV's could fix this), but if a central authority could invalidate a sender's certificate, and no email program would display an email from that sender from the moment the certificate was invalidated, well then we'd have a good chunk of the problem solved.

Certainly this approach would raise other problems, but I think they are all relatively managable. Got one you think's a killer for this idea? Wondering what the heck I'm talking about at all? Drop me an email at roblogATthenetatworkDOTcom.

(PS Eesh, I just read Faber's comment about tearing down email altogether. WAY more effort than is really necessary. Also, it was good to see that pretty much all of the rest of the respondents were into authentication.)
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