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EMail: bankruptcy, or do we need a new currency

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E-mail sucks. How’s that for starters. If you’re like me, you spend hours of your valuable time separating the wheat from the chaff. Others like Fred Wilson are filing for “e-mail bankruptcy.” I think that is just an easy way out. What we need to do is rethink the whole email-communications paradigm, and I write about that in my latest column for Business 2.0.

E-mail became the Internet’s first killer app — and therein lies the problem. As software goes, e-mail is almost socialist: From each according to his ability, to each whether or not he needs it. ….It doesn’t matter if the message comes from a spammer hawking Viagra, your wife asking you to pick up some wine, your boss telling the company that Monday is a holiday, or a client asking for a meeting at his office at 11 a.m. In today’s inboxes, all e-mail messages are equal. (Business 2.0)

There is a short term fix, Anne Zelenka says. “Perhaps short emails without extra niceties are not just acceptable but preferable in our connected world on the web,” she writes on Web Worker Daily.

31 Responses to “EMail: bankruptcy, or do we need a new currency”

  1. 'Chelle

    Equal? Um. No.

    Honestly, I must be in the minority with all of this. I keep seeing people write about this new avalanche of email they’re being buried under. Like it’s a new thing.

    Aren’t most of us savvy enough to know which emails need to be dealt with right away and which are read and discarded? Haven’t we all learned the difference between spam and an email from mom? Why is this difficult?

    I don’t need another app to buy postage or coins or something to get attention to my email ahead of someone else’s. My relationship and what I need from the person or what the person needs from me does that for me. For free. Imagine the concept.

    I have 4 websites, work email, blog comments… and all together that brings in about 400 or so emails a day. Not a lot, but enough to keep me busy.

    I’ve never felt like I’ve gotten behind in answering a single one of those because I know which ones need my attention, and which ones can just sit.

    The problem isn’t email. The problem is how we manage our conversations through email. The problem is how we designate weight to what’s answered and what’s just read and filed for information. The problem is most often the user.

  2. Gmail has an incredible spam filter, and you can now run your corporate email through Gmail at your own domain. No IMAP though — I hope Google implements that soon. IMAP seems like a no brainer given Google’s interest in mobile communications.

  3. LOL @ Mark

    I just switched to GMail and I love it, but to be brutally honest, it’s no different than other e-mail providers. I will never use the amount of storage, whether it’s 3GB on Google or unlimited storage on Yahoo. That aspect simply does not appeal to me… Yes, if a service has storage under 10MB, I might reconsider – but that’s even stretching it.

    I just want to be able to reach out to my contacts more effectively. I want to be able to easily define my contacts, to be able to let me choose who can or can’t get in touch with me based on network depth. LinkedIn and others are fine at doing that, but your limited to the depth of their walled garden.

  4. ronald

    First let’s look at the email protocol. It’s based on a [email protected] addressing scheme, like [email protected] or [email protected]. Before we actually had dedicated mail servers we a had already context driven email, since I got mail to servers which I would work on different problems and the mail I got there was related to the problem the machine was dedicated to. Unfortunately that was not manageable very long, as more users joined the party (internet) and got lost in aggregation.
    Second, I would really hate if somebody else not close to me would try to guess my priorities and try to priorities mail send to me in the protocol. That will not work, so no cigar.
    Third, it’s not really a problem with email. It’s a problem with the desktop metaphor as we use it today. From my point of view we do not need more aggregation, gmail, hotmail , isp mail servers. We need more personalization. Have lets say the 100 different contexts I’m working in reflected in my Desktop and email sorted into to those contexts. Otherwise how do we keep the 80 core Intel CPU busy?
    To sum it up, priorities change in time and context. Guessing them is not helpful, even with a machine which has minimal self awareness. We need to change from having a paradigm of working with the computer to having the computer work or us. Therefore we need to share context.
    Or to really sum it up, don’t focus on email. It’s just a symptom of the bigger problem we need to fix to become more productive with our systems.

  5. ‘Postage stamps’ for email is the way to go IMHO.

    Registrars sell digital postage stamps, that we affix to our emails. I set my email client to accept all emails from people on my contacts list for free; other emails must have at least X cents worth of stamps attached. Emails with less than this are returned with a polite message saying ‘insufficient postage’. Someone famous might set X very high, but most people would set it at one or two cents. Even at this low threshold, this would instantly eliminate the business model for spam – do the numbers, on their costs versus the minuscule response rate.

    Bill Gates suggested this a few years ago, and I think this idea’s time is going to come…

    (In the meantime, I concur with the previous reader who remarked on Gmail’s incredible ability to largely eliminate spam. Gmail accounts are accessible via POP3, and I route all my email through one, just to filter out the spam first – works really well)

  6. The biggest issue with email is that it’s assumed that it must be free, and a decently run mail service with a decently run spam filter eats lots of resources.

    There are plenty anti-spam techniques based on the reputation of the sender that mitigates the equality of all messages. And a good combination of several techniques (rule based, statistical, reputation, …) can successfully classify most of the spam.

    On my personal email account (low traffic) I have received around 16K spam messages in last year, and I hardly see a couple a week in my inbox. So I’m sorry, but if your inbox is full of spam … pay for a better service!! (yes they exist, some email providers takes spam filtering seriously)

  7. With GMAIL now going mainstream, all of my email problems have been solved. Their spam filters work great. I never get spam in my inbox. Also their storage limits and maximum email file sizes are incredible…not to mention great search functionality. GMAIL has made email fun again.

  8. Another example of echo chamber chatter. Most people don’t have email bankruptcy.

    Om – you are a famous blogger. A good one at that. You get tons of email.

    Most people, even those very involved with the Web, are not at the level of being at email bankruptcy. Sure, we may be close, but I get about 200 work-related and 15-20 personal emails per day and it works out fine. You learn to filter emails based on who they are from, what they are about, etc.

    What I do think would be more useful is an email system that could improve on the current web-based platforms by allowing you to have emails categorized and prioritized.

    @ Matt at Xobni – No offense but your company has one of the worst names ever. How does one even pronounce that? Vinod Khosla is a smart guy but I’m not sure you’re going to fix emails problems despite your “sunglasses required” approach. At least you have free Naked Juice though. How about you actually explain what on earth you do rather than sounding like a bunch of arrogant 23 year olds on your blog?

  9. Pam Stamos

    Anyone who has worked with email on an intimate level knows that the problems of email are inherent to the platform. Perhaps it’s time for a new platform.

  10. I’m all for Tim O’Reilly’s somewhat proposed method of communication analysis. Build a social network on top of the e-mail layer. Make it open by allowing data to freely flow into and out of it (while still maintaining security). Allow e-mail services to extend an option to their users to “track” their relationships with people, which would offer them better control over their e-mail, while giving them the ability to find contacts easier.

    Again, just storming in my brain :)

  11. Fukzu F-Mail is redefining online mail. Leveraging what is uncommon and unimaginable to our blend of thinking. Our F-ilosophy is to challenge all that is known and in the process, unravel the very thread of our beliefs.

    The revolution is about changing the way we perceive email. The next generation email is Fukzu Mail (F-Mail). Most ask us how different is it? It’s different enough to validate a shift in thinking and behavior.


    Read more at – redefining online mail!!!

  12. [brainstorm]

    Why not just have the SMTP server check the receiving server for authentication? I create a list of who can contact me on the receiving server… any SMTP servers attempting to send me mail would do a simple lookup before sending it.

    For example, if [email protected] tries to send [email protected], it will be denied before it’s even sent if UserX doesn’t allow UserA. If no authentication is even attempted, then the receiving server wouldn’t even accept the connection, leaving the bandwidth issues on the SMTP side.

    To be more effective, if a UserA allows UserB, and UserB allows UserC, then UserA should allow UserC. Unless someone lets in a spammer, you’re going to be relatively safe.

    But…… what happens when I change my e-mail address? what happens if all of the e-mail services don’t adopt?

  13. From the server side, we can do just about anything that we want to. Postfix and Exchange (as well as most MTA’s) both allow you to configure allowed recipients and senders. Additionally, most email clients allow you to set them up so they only put emails from your contacts list into your inbox ,while putting others in another box for you to sift through later. We are missing one important piece here though; Keeping SPAM and malicious email out of user inboxes does not solve the issue of the huge amount of SPAM that steals bandwidth and resources from the internet as a whole. A truly effective method to combat SPAM would actually reduce the amount that is clogging our mail servers. This could only be accomplished by a system that makes SPAM obsolete (i.e. it never gets to it’s intended recipients). Only then will the SPAMmers focus their attention on a different means in which to harass us.

  14. Good points, Jerry.

    I guess it’s hard to define a fix when most people don’t even have the problem. Of course people like Om and Fred Wilson have that problem, they have 10,000 contacts. But for the average users, there really isn’t anything to fix. Why not force Om and Fred Wilson to come up with the solution ;-)

    Social network messaging does so well because it’s easy to get in touch. I don’t have to remember addresses, I can get in contact with people just beyond my network, etc… but it will never work because it’s locked up so tight. What if Hotmail only allowed you to send and receive e-mail from Hotmail domains?

    All of that isn’t possible with e-mail. I think that’s where the bigger problem is.

  15. Om,

    go ahead and skip right to the “Meaningful Context” section of my “Innovation in E-mail” article, because it talks about solving exactly the problem you mention. Applying context to our communications is the key to making them more valuable, sortable, manageable, whateverable. And fortunately for us, now more than ever before, we have the tools to do so.

    On Monday, I wrote about the growth of emerging web platforms, and the potential for improvements by making more connections between these platforms. A specific example, how we could combine the concept of “presence” from the mobile web with the context of our social networks to help us filter our communications:

    “Imagine that your PDA/phone/fax/camera is connected to your social networking profiles, and depending on your status and the status of your network contacts at any given time, automatically determines whether to ring during a meeting because of an emergency, vibrate because you’re receiving a text message during a class, or automatically shunt to voice mail when an unknown number calls you during dinner.”

    If you’re interested in how to make e-mail less boring, also see my ideas on multimedia e-mail, secure e-mail, and identity verification. I’ve tried to provide a comprehensive overview of how e-mail has developed in recent years, and the ways in which it could still improve. Hope you find it useful.

    Jay Neely, Social Strategist

  16. Hey Om,

    Thanks for mentioning Xobni in the Biz 2.0 article. I promise, we are working on the termites! We completely agree with Jerry Gartner; it is essential to fit in to the fundamental way that email works. That is why we integrate with existing email clients to surface the right information at the right time. Get in on our beta at

  17. I’m not sure we have to dump email, maybe just re-envision the way email works. I like what is being said about “priority”. Perhaps our email should learn whom we have communicated w/before and allow us to tag these users with a priority level. Thunderbird, Outlook, et al., all have some basic functionality beginning to lean this way but it needs to be much simpler than creating whitelists, etc.

  18. Roy Palum

    “At this point in the game, reinventing the entire system is not feasible.”

    Gonna have to disagree with you on that one Robert.

  19. Robert:

    The current infrastructure in no way allows for priority. The classes like bulk, normal, and priority really have no real effect on how messages are treated. There are ideas about keys or tokens being integrated in to email systems, but implementation of such things tends to be proprietary. It is, as Om states, a large opportunity for the person or company that figures out how to get this functionality built in to the pre-existing system of store and forward. At this point in the game, reinventing the entire system is not feasible. What ever solutions are proposed will only be successful if they fit in with the fundamental way that email works. Until we reach that point, there are effective methods for keeping most unwanted email out of our inbox. BTW, my family and clients have a different email address for me than do most spammers so they do get priority. It’s not automatic, but it works well. Any email address that I put out on the internet is a spam trap (i.e. yahoo or hotmail) address, except in rare circumstances.

  20. Jerry;

    The problem isn’t spam. It’s the fact that 1) messages from each sender are treated equally, and 2) it’s hard to reach beyond your first degree.

    Spam is often caught dead in it’s tracks… but shouldn’t a message from your brother receive higher priority than a message from the salesman from the car lot?

  21. Sam;

    Facebook messaging cannot scale because it is not open. Instead of moving messaging to proprietary social networks, why not move sociality towards e-mail?

    We’re at a point where I think we can safely define our networks based on who we communicate with, not who is or isn’t part of a service. Facebook doesn’t benefit me if 80% of my contacts aren’t there.

  22. Although garbage email is an issue, we deployed spamassassin and clamav (Open Source anti-spam and anti-virus software) on our mail server. We’ve had great results with this combonation. Live stats are available at It stops spam (over 11000 blocked since Sept of 2006), viruses, and phishing scams at the server. Our users never see them which improves productivity and reduces the amount of downtime due to email propagated malware. For those of you who don’t have the luxury of your own mail server, there is it’s a subscription service but it works at least as well as the above mentioned Open Source combination. Spamassassin can be configured to use Vipul’s Razor. It’s a rather effective method to help determine what is and what is not spam. It’s creators are Vipul Ved Prakash and Jordan Ritter. Mr. Prackash is also the founder of cloudmark.

  23. That’s why Facebook messages are becoming increasingly popular. They’ve supplanted e-mail at many college campuses. There is no spam and it’s easy to send and receive messaged. With the platform, it’s easy to send files or pictures and even send video messages, which I’ve done easily a few times now.