Re: The Monstrosity Email Has Become

📅 Published 2021-10-20

This is in response to a post by Ploum, "The Monstrosity Email Has Become" (Gemini only). The gist is that email was a product of another era, and its original simplicity has given way to a great deal of hidden complexity--DMARC/SPF, MIME, IMAP, HTML email, spam, blacklisting--that makes it much harder to work with.

The Monstrosity Email Has Become

I completely agree with this sentiment. I haven't run my own mail server in many years, precisely because I have other things to do with my time besides figuring out why Google users can't receive my messages. I don't like this situation, but I feel stuck.

One potential solution is a Gemini-like alternative to email, a "smol mail" that is both modernized and simplified. I'd like to contribute a few thoughts here regarding the less technical side of this question.

What is an email anyway?

If we had to describe email using a metaphor, many of us would probably compare it to a letter. But is this accurate? When it was originally conceived, I would say so; many of email's original features are like a hand-mailed letter, and even the name lends itself to the metaphor. For one thing, much like letters, emails didn't arrive immediately! Before the modern always-on internet, store-and-forward was common for email, and it could take some time for your message to be delivered.

store-and-forward

This metaphor became muddied as network speeds and reliability increased, but in many ways it is still present in how we approach email. Corporations expect everyone to have an email "address" for receiving their communications, just as they expect you to have a physical address. The typical email icon is a little envelope. Advertisers are happy to send spam to your inbox just as they send junk mail to your mailbox. And so on.

On the other hand, the near-instant nature of modern email makes it obviously different than a letter. Also unlike a letter, email is free to send; no stamp is required. And of course the ease of sending an email is much different than writing, sealing, and mailing a physical letter. For these reasons I'd say that email has mostly shed the "letter" metaphor.

On email composition

There are some things that email gets right. One of them is flexibility of composition: I can arrange the contents of my email however I see fit. The strengths and weakenesses of this feature are exhibited when you consider the realities of how people use the protocol.

The other day Nristen mentioned the ancient "top posting" versus "bottom posting" debate. This refers to an email etiquette dispute in the 1990s about whether email replies should place quoted text before or after the reply text. Isn't this just a client presentation detail? On the surface it seems that way, but when you actually consider the variety of ways that people can clip and arrange quoted material to clarify their point, I think this has to be left up to the author.

"top posting" versus "bottom posting" debate

Similarly, you have the issue of nested quotes. When quoting, should you include previously quoted material, or not? I think the answer is maybe, but only when appropriate. If understanding the context of a quote demands a nested quote then you should include it, otherwise you're just including extra text for no reason. Again, there is no way that the protocol or message format can enforce this. It has to be the responsibility of the author.

The nature of our tools (and often our jobs) have conditioned us to pay less attention to composition. I am guilty of this myself! The instantaneous nature of modern email is a huge factor in this change. Why spend time composing a message that is designed to be disposable? Another source of the problem is the misuse of email, especially corporate email, as a chat or instant messaging platform. (Thankfully this practice is becoming less common in the era of Slack and Discord.)

Is email an overloaded concept?

So email started as a letter-writing metaphor, and somehow it's become more of a telegram: a tool for rapid memo dissemination and general notifications, with little attention paid to craft and composition. This isn't great for fans of slower, more thoughtful writing, but what's the alternative? An abundance of protocols? Well, let's consider that for a moment.

During its development, the modern internet needed a tool for getting all sorts of information from point A to point B. Other protocols were tried, and many of these still exist in obscure corners of the internet, but email ended up being the most convenient catch-all for everything except very large files.

I think this is the best explanation for what happened to email. It was just too damn convenient for its own good. Everyone had (or could acquire) a human-readable address, the metaphor made it easy to understand, the format was extremely flexible, and it generally just *worked*. And nobody had to write a new protocol to handle it! This degraded the original metaphor, our inboxes filled up with junk, and now it's become unfashionable to write carefully considered emails.

Interestingly, as the complexity of the computing landscape increases, we are seeing individual use cases fork away from email. Instant messaging apps, social media, and SMS are much more common for quick personal communications than email. Informal work chats are moving to software like Slack. Some companies are moving consumer notifications to dedicated apps. It's possible that email may become more like a letter again! But email still has decades of baggage associated with it, and of course there will always be spam.

What should electronic mail look like?

So let's say that someone designs a new protocol that is designed for slow, thoughtful conversations, without depending on a centralized provider. How do you prevent it from becoming as overloaded as email? From my perspective, I think you have to revisit the original letter metaphor.

Some characteristics of a letter:

Some of these traits are not realistic or desirable in electronic mail. For example, although having a monetary cost would reduce spam, I don't think it would be fair to impose a uniform cost in a world with such disparity of wealth. I'm also not sure how to implement cost in a decentralized manner without getting into complex schemes like cryptocurrencies. But there are also some surprising opportunities to be found in these traits.

What can you imagine based on this list?

Edit: see my followup post for more on this subject, including a much-needed correction.

followup post

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Comments? Email the author: mntn at mntn.xyz

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