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June 8, 2004

The State of Email

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Posted by Ross Mayfield

I'm not one to give an address on the state of email (leave that to Eric Hahn), but I can address how the state of email is changing after participating in the INBOX Event last week. Since 1973, when it was 73% of Arpanet traffic, email has been the dominant application on the network. A simple open method with a message format and receiver addresses to push it to, was relatively too simple during the boom compared to the amount of investment the web received. Email service providers like Critical Path being the exception. During the bust, people kept using email, of course, but it was a victim of its own openness. Combating spam and viruses became cause du jour, creating the Spam Bubblet of Summer 2002, the last gasp of the boom. The Compliance Economy, marked by security and regulation with the economy largely stimulated by the government, fostered many a startup. Its nice wihen the government doles out requirements and the value proposition of fear is compelling. Sarbanes Oxley alone led to a raft of companies with a simple mandate -- you must comply. The net effect is the email industry is doing fine, thank you. Well funded startups solving spam, viruses, security and compliance. Service providers and enterprises committed to support a now standard modality with coffers open for anything that can institute control over rising costs. You have heard the stats before, email volume is growing at 40% per year, spam at 65%, etc. Fundamentally, spam is an economic problem -- low cost to send in volume, high cost to receive. Spamware costs $30 and provides 40k open relays and proxy servers to exploit with a wizard for idiots. Bonded sender programs are starting to bear fruit, but extracting a direct financial penalty only applies to senders you can identify or solutions that require unfeasible scale. New approaches like Pre-solved Computational Proof may create direct hard costs for senders. That said, vendors are declaring a modest victory over spam -- best of breed solutions have spam at a constant. But this protection is only afforded to a handful of power and enterprise users. Consumers are waiting on economic, legal and technical solutions to take hold. Sender ID, a new standard approach for authentication will not be adopted in a reasonable timeframe. I've already wasted enough space talking about spam, a topic that self-propogates and ends up with people sharing their personal agnst, so I'll stop. Steve Gillmor already covered some of the issues of the Compliance Economy and how RSS presents an alternative and I wrote up the cost of control in the enterprise. Bottom line is that users will arbitrage around restrictions to use their own tools which has a bottom line consequence. So lets get to how the state is changing. Dave Crocker rightly pointed out that email wasn't designed, for its present scale, costs or applications. Its these costs (average Fortune 1000 employee spending 4 hours a day in their Inbox, and counting), that are forcing change in some cases -- and at the least opening people to new alternatives. An opportunity for new developments like RSS and Atom. This is where the Email is Dead thread comes from. Why we are watching the rise of alternative modalities. Time to talk about Email 2.0. Media adoption theory holds that the rise of one media seldom means the complete replacement of the old. But unlike previous media, email creates negative externalities that I believe test the theory. Costs well beyond the burdens advertising and congestion has placed on us before. For the record, email isn't going to die, I just don't think we have history to inform models -- and its state is going to change. Esther envisions an Email 2.0 that blends with the cloud:
...More fundamentally, as the world becomes more real-time and connected, the virtual and increasingly the actual configuration of the system is changing. There's a rich, complex, shared data store in the cloud, and mail is simply the passing of notifications and alerts that tell you to pay attention to/download specific items in the cloud that are new or changed or that someone wants to share with you. this creates huge challenges in version control, updating and permission management....
Esther also pointed out at the conference the increasing challenges in attention management. Let's consider three aspects attention management : Search, User Control and Network Structure. Part of the problem is we view email as something we have to consume when we get it. The marginal value of a message exponentially decays because there isn't confidence in retrieval (Bloomba and Gmail are addressing this with deep search and usable metadata). We force ourselves to pay attention to every interruption and live in our Inbox, suffering an interruption tax of 15 minutes to fully recover to the cognitive state we were in before the ping (this is why I believe IM is due for a cultural shift, and we already see signs of it with interrupt flow largely being top-down in careful interrupting your boss, its not convention). RSS, Atom, Blogs, Wikis and Workspaces represent a Pull Model model of attention management that lets users control what the subscribe to AND when they want to receive it. Email, by contrast, centers on an Inbox beyond your control. Once someone has your address, at least your gateway will be bombarded. You have control over your subscriptions in your client. If someone starts to spam, you loose trust and unsubscribe. Reputation has some value in feed selection, but if it fails you have recourse. Occupational Spam, email sent out of context characterized by CCs, is 30% of corporate email. You know this problem and are a part of it. You want to keep people informed and you want to be informed. The problem is email wasn't designed and its best use is for one-to-one communication. Enter Workspaces, which in our latest case study dropped group email from 100 messages per day to practically zero. The efficiency for information flow gained is similar to moving network structure from point-to-point to a hubbed architecture. But beyond the network structure, greater transparency allows people to be informed when they have time for peripheral attention. Workspaces are designed for Many-to-Many interaction, where group communication should occur and with the right email integration it doesn't demand up front change in behavior. In the future, everyone will be Larry Lessig for 1500 messages a day. All addresses will be exposed and everyone has a global constituency that will ping you. You have a choice of declaring Email Bankruptcy or shifting to other modalities. Use Social Networks as your whitelist and a web of trust for new Senders. Use public blogs for open broadcast. Use Workspaces for group communication. It may be interesting to note that Communities Tied to One Technology pattern applies less to strong ties, but social networking services and a public identity as a blog will keep you in touch with weaker ties. In the end, they are all messages -- and email and the web are blurring as a platform to give you greater control and choice.

Comments (5) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Zoe on June 9, 2004 7:02 AM writes...

social software, noun

This is all good and well, but considering that "they are all messages", how does "social software" help with "bankruptcy"?

Doesn't the exact same problems apply no matter what the underlying distribution channel is?

Should we not talk about "The State of Communication" instead?

And worry about "Communication Bankruptcy" instead of using email as a convenient scapegoat to promote the fashion of the day?

On the other hand, I'm glad to see the apparatchiks catching up with search:

Googling Your Email

-- Jon Udel, O'Reilly Network, 10/07/2002

Permalink to Comment

2. Ross Mayfield on June 9, 2004 10:52 AM writes...

Hi Jon --

Eric Hahn made a similar point:

"There is a group of people who say email is dead that say email is dead because of spam, which is why we should switch to their model, but if we do, we will have spam there."

Eric is probably right about the politics, but there are ways of addressing spam and occupational spam through social software. Pull is different than Push. Social Networking with the right constraints can be an effective filter (I'm queuing myself up for an argument here). Workspace for trusted groups provide spam-free environments (Ray Ozzie agree, is on that side of politics, but should know too).

Email is more than effective scapegoat. While other media had their inflection points where costs were addressed (e.g. fax spam, do not call), these media changed because they were augmented by computation that created the costs after being mature. Email is different in that it had this cost to begin with, with growing marginal costs at scale.

Email's own underlying distribution channel is changing, trending towards authentication and gateways that go beyond store and forward to applying business rules. Other modalities are trending towards the openness of email and each one certainly integrates with it (which with poor design or etiquette leads to social spam). Perhaps the two will meet in the middle and if harmonized would be a state of communication in general.

Permalink to Comment

3. Maciej Ceglowski on June 9, 2004 4:59 PM writes...

Please consider either working with an editor or switching to decaf. I can understand some of the points you're making here, but only at the cost of substantial mental effort on a par with reading Proust. Your writing reads like it was written in a great hurry, and is often difficult for me to understand. I suspect other readers may feel the same way.

Some time spent on revision will give your ideas a fighting chance of making it out of your prose style alive, allowing us to attack them on the merits.

Permalink to Comment

4. Ed Brill on June 11, 2004 8:45 AM writes...

Excerpt: Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, has written his thoughts on the "e-mail is dead" topic that was one of the main themes of last week's Inbox conference. I agree with much of what Ross has written, but there are a couple of points where we differ.

(this is a pseudo-trackback...soon upgrading blog software to support real trackback)

Permalink to Comment

5. dreww on June 22, 2004 9:30 PM writes...

Yes, his wooden yet spastic prose style hid several interesting assertions:

* Socialtext's product solves everything wrong with corporate email, the middle east, and world hunger

* Something about 'alternate modalities' and 'negative externalities' and then an Esther quote.

okay, i give up.

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