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Summary:

PC Mag’s John C. Dvorak contends that people have stopped responding to their email, and that social networking sites like Facebook aren’t the solution. What would be? Dvorak thinks the salvation of email would be making it a pay service, with fees applied in micro-payment tolls.

PC Mag’s John C. Dvorak contends that people have stopped responding to their email, and that social networking sites like Facebook aren’t the solution. What would be? Dvorak thinks the salvation of email would be making it a pay service, with the fees applied in micro-payment tolls.

I have to say that from my perspective as a web worker, Dvorak’s take on email seems to be excessively jaundiced. He claims it no longer works even as well as snail mail, and that due to volume, even after spam filtering, he often misses important messages, that numerous people have given up on email, with the worst cases being being various people he tries to get on his show. Few such individuals actually respond to email any more, declares Dvorak, the rest having decamped to Twitter and Facebook. He notes that even among those folks whose Twitter accounts he can access, he often still gets no response, deducing that many people have simply removed themselves from the email grid and retreated to Facebook, with which he refuses to get involved, dismissing it as a hangout for college kids and old ladies. I’m inclined to agree that Facebook is not a place I want to go. Where do people find the time? Presumably in some cases by ignoring their email. However, I consider that to be a cultural Facebook/Twitter problem and a matter of misplaced priorities rather than a structural email problem.

I also agree with Dvorak about the lameness and tediousness of email verification systems, but not so much with his proposal to use Paypal or some other micropayment operation as an alternative to free email, obliging users to pay a toll in order for the intended recipient to actually get the message — kind of like a reverse postal service, which he thinks would eliminate all spam and minimize useless email. Dvorak acknowledges that newsletter and listserv users would be hurt by his proposal (I administer a listserv, and it would be toast with any sort of for-fee email gatekeeping in place), unless there was a “subscribe” flag that would allow newsletter distributors to send out group emails without the fee.

The idea sounds complex to me, an administrative nightmare with more nickel and dime expense on top of already exorbitant broadband and wireless fees. Complexity usually preempts popular adoption. Dvorak acknowledges this, noting that “The real difficulty would be the creation of mechanisms that would actually be adopted. It would have to begin as some sort of standard adopted by a lot of big ISPs.” That’s a mighty steep hill to climb.

Perhaps someday a system like the one John Dvorak is proposing will be implemented. I hope not, and in the meantime, there are ways to deal with the inbox tsunami so that keeping in front of it isn’t nearly as tedious and time–consuming. Frankly, I haven’t experienced the sort of email communication breakdown Dvorak complains of. I don’t doubt his account, but I find people do answer my emails, and I am usually able to answer theirs with reasonably prompt dispatch.

My first line of defense is that I have a bunch of e-mail accounts — something over 20 in total, but about a dozen that I use actively. Some of these addresses I only divulge to people I really want to hear from, and to whom I want to be accessible without delay. That, combined with Gmail, GMX Mail, and Yahoo! Mail’s respective smart spam filtering keeps inbox overload quite manageable.

Secondly, I find it helpful to be able to check server inbox content via a POP3 inbox check utility prior to downloading messages to my hard drive or even going to the webmail inbox (Gmail and GMX offer free POP support). I use a little application called Mail Beacon, which is no longer being developed, but good alternatives are the shareware POPMonitor and open-source (donationware) MyPopBarrier. Those are Mac applications, but I assume that similar utilities are available for Windows and Linux. A big advantage of these programs is that they quickly display a list of current inbox content, allowing you to cull spam and other junk before opening a single message. The trying–too–hard sales pitch, or just plain bizarre subject lines and dodgy return addresses are usually a dead giveaway. Typically, my web persona inbox will contain 80 to 150 incoming messages on a check, of which all but 10 or 15 will be obvious spam, promotions, or press releases I will be giving a pass. Delete the dross, and you have a manageable number of messages to deal with. It takes a bit of time management discipline, but it’s really not that time-consuming once you get into the habit.

What do you think of Dvorak’s proposal? Would pay email help to reduce email overload?

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub. req.): Email: The Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Image by Flickr user 10ch, licensed under CC 2.0

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  1. Back in 2008 I had thought of a similar solution for newsletters mostly: TipJoy as email postage?. TipJoy looked very cool for micropayments at the time.

  2. The problem with what Mr. Dvorak is talking about is he assumes everybody is having the same problem he is having and there needs to be a solution for everybody. Most people don’t have the problem of too much unsolicited non-spam email.

    The people that do have this problem are internet celebrities or people in high positions where many people want something from them. It’s very easy for just anybody to fire off an email to that person asking for something (hey, will you be on my podcast?) and that email has equal priority in their inbox. It isn’t really spam but it is noise to that person.

    I’m working on a system that isn’t directly tied into email (a separate inbox) for paid messages. The recipient recognizes they have a problem and tells everybody he doesn’t know to go here and send them a message by paying the price the recipient sets. The recipient is basically saying “if you are willing to pay $xx, I am willing to read it.”. They then have a choice to say “it was worth it” and reply or ignore it. If the message was worth it, then the sender gets their money back, if it is ignored, the recipient gets the money.

    This doesn’t stop some stranger from randomly sending them emails, however, I think a “VIP” list of incoming email addresses can help with this. You create a whitelist of people you work with and care about and always check those messages first. So it ends up being a vip list of email addresses and a paid inbox.

    You’re never going to see an overarching change to the email system with micropayments… you need a third-party system that someone with a problem chooses to use.

    1. For such people, I believe Knuth’s solution is the best possible route.

      1. Yeah. I think the underlying theme is the same, raise the barrier to entry to communicating with him. Making people print out a letter, find an envelope and stamp, and put it in the mail is enough to prevent a high percentage of people from contacting him in the first place.

  3. If the ISP allowed the user to define a whitelist of email addresses they will accept free, all others would get a bounce-back stating they will be charged a fee, Click link to continue.

    Subscribers would have to add that address to the whitelist or not get their newsletters. Simple as that.

    No more [bulk] tag in the headers, false-positives, etc.

  4. What about email encryption. I mean real encryption, from end-to-end with the FROM and TO email encrypted. The problem is the sender and recipients emails are not encrypted, so harvesters may collect them and send spam later. If an email address could remain private via encryption, then a lot of spam would be eliminated. For instance, I have a special email address the server sends an email containing debugging info about a server. I never used this email nowhere, except by the server sending me notifications, yet I receive spam at this email address (and this email address cannot be guessed, as it is similar as a 128-bit GUID).

    On the first step, the emails could be transmitted via SSL, and later have another protocol such as PGP which also encrypt the FROM, TO and SUBJECT of the mail message. The SMTP server would query the public key of the MX Server and encrypt the headers using the public key of the destination server. When the server receives an email, it uses its private key to decrypt the headers and move the message to the inbox of the appropriate user. If the user uses PGP, then the email client of the user would decrypt his own message using his own PGP key.

    Paying for emails is likely to turn into a big scam. The big question is WHO will receive this money, and WHO will decide how much to pay. Nobody will be happy about this scheme except the ones collecting the “spam money”.

  5. It’s hard to believe that there are people out there who get so much email that they are not responding or giving up on email altogether, but my boss has experienced it and some of his collegues too. He actually subscribes to a service that combines all of his emails from multiple accounts and then sends him a daily report where the emails are put into categories. He’s been using it for a couple of months and seems happy about it. It is for a fee though. He still gets tons of email, but at least it’s much easier to respond to others in a timely fashion.

  6. This is sadly mistaken; if for no other reason that it’s got all of the problems of a non-paying verification authority that’s been proposed–and is probably the only real solution–and it costs the end user money.

    Somehow, you have to make it impossible for the spammers to dump millions of messages for free, as they can today. The idea that mail servers have to register with an “Authority” and validate themselves before sending mail is sensible; except quis custodiet ipsos custodes? That’s effectively what we have today with registrars for domain names, and we’ve seen crooked registrars serving as havens for spammers. The same problem would exist for any sort of mail server authority. Add money into the mix, and the spammers will just set up corrupt channels for that.

  7. About as daft an idea as you can get why:
    email runs acrss the internet, force people to pay and an alternative service wil pop up.

    Secondly not all unkown mail is unwanted, for example enquiries about a product, tech support etc etc. Imagine you have a product problem and you have to pay to contact your supplier (if they don;t respond – see a new scam coming up there)

    The bulk of mail is created by a very few individuals, if law enforcement got off its proverbial fat a**** they could close these operators down.

  8. Dan Desjardins Thursday, August 26, 2010

    Though I have not read his proposal I believe Dvorak is correct. The only way to make it succeed is to support absolutely NO exceptions to the rule of “pay per email.” Dvoraks proposal is one that is very simply designed to improve the signal to noise ratio on the internet. There will still be spam – but a lot less of it. If we set up non-paid white lists (as others have suggested) or any other exceptions (read these as “loop holes”) then they will be exploited to the maximum and likely render the plan completely useless – just like the Can-Spam act (what a friggin joke the proves how powerless congress is against forces they do not and can not understand).
    Everyone pays a penny per email. It will significantly reduce spam and a lot of email that really didn’t need to be sent anyway!

  9. Well, for now I’m happy with Gmail and Thunderbird. Gmail for blocking spam and Thunderbird for having such great filter possibles: it’s marks “important” when sender is from work and mark “danger” when is my mother-in-law :D

  10. I’m going to send him a letter indicating what a bogon emitter he is … if only I can find a stamp … and an envelope.

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