by J.D. Falk
I tend to chuckle at every new proclamation that email is dead. Google Wave won't kill it. Twitter and Facebook aren't killing it; they're using it. RSS didn't kill it. Instant messaging didn't kill it. "Push media" (remember that?) didn't kill it. AOL and Compuserve and Prodigy didn't kill it; they joined it. And before that, usenet and email lived happily side-by-side.
Over the years the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email (CAUCE), the world's oldest and largest email advocacy organization, has also predicted the death of email. Some day, we've said, we will reach a tipping point where spam finally makes email unusable for regular people. And for any people who doesn't have good spam filters, that's already happened. Avoiding email's death by spam has given rise to the spam filtering & security industry, and the equally powerful mailbox hosting industry. It has elevated open source projects like SpamAssassin from curiosities to necessities. I've lost count of the number of hardcore geeks who've finally given up on running their own severs, and moved their personal mail to Gmail.
Through these efforts, and these small personal concessions, email survives.
But it's not the same, and I'm left wondering if a part of email has died.
When CAUCE started up in the mid-nineties, we got some flak for being against unsolicited commercial email instead of all bulk email. We made that choice partly because we've always advocated for strong, intelligently crafted anti-spam laws, and legislators — particularly in the United States — are more willing to restrict commercial speech than non-commercial speech.
But it's also because not all bulk email is spam; there are lots of non-commercial, non-spammy reasons to send the same message to a whole bunch of people.
We did that ourselves recently, alerting our members and supporters to the debate over Canada's proposed anti-spam bill, C-27. Some of the messages bounced because the email address was no longer valid, no surprise given how long it's been since there was anything exciting for us to tell them. Some — we don't know how much — was caught in spam filters, though few would argue that a message sent from a venerable anti-spam organization to our willing subscribers is spam.
Along with the filtering and hosting industries, another new field has sprung up in response to spam. They call their work "deliverability," and have developed tools which attempt to determine whether a message will be successfully delivered to the intended recipients. Some will go as far as sending a messages through popular spam filters to see if it'll get caught, or calling mailbox providers to beg for the mail to be allowed through. The old-time anti-spam community would've said this is the domain of spammers, but to many people and companies who are trying to send bulk non-spam mail today, it feels like a necessity.
(In the interests of transparency I should mention that CAUCE is sponsored in part by a company which offers deliverability-related products, and some of our board members work in that field.)
So we've got filters battling spam, and now deliverability wonks battling filters. But the deliverability industry is primarily only interested in delivering marketing email — in other words, solicited commercial bulk email.
The Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG) published a study this past summer which reminded us that, to actual humans, marketing is far from the most important kind of email. But there's no doubt that it's part of the email experience.
With that battle going on, bulk email — marketing and otherwise — may indeed on the verge of dying. Increasing spam leads to increasing filtering leads to increasing deliverability problems, but it's not the filters that created the problem. What's killing it, ironically, is that bulk email was never supposed to exist in the first place.
At the most basic technical level, email is like traditional marriage: from one email address, to one email address. The author can include more than one recipient, but the underlying systems deliver the message to each recipient's mailbox as a new, separate transaction. In this way, the concept of "bulk email" is nearly identical to bulk postal mail — you may only be pressing the "send" button once, but the sending process happens multiple times, across many separate instances.
Other technologies are much, much better at disseminating information from one author to multiple willing recipients. RSS, which is really just another way to access content from the web, does it quite well. So do social networking sites like Facebook. And Twitter, with its culture of "re-tweeting" other peoples' messages to disseminate them further, is perfect.
Our experience with the C-27 effort was that email got the message out a little bit, with little visible effect — and if we'd wanted to, we could've spent countless hours tracking down deliverability issues. The CAUCE page on Facebook got some attention. Our Twitter follower count grew quickly without much effort on our part, and our messages there (to our surprise) were received directly by the offices of some of the Members of Parliament we were trying to reach.
What got the most attention wasn't even our doing. On Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow published a quote from Michael Geist's article about the copyright lobby's attempts to remove the anti-malware provisions of C-27, and that got picked up. In other words: what worked best was traditional, one-to-many news about an exciting and urgent topic — updated in format, but not in form.
While email between human beings lives on, it's possible that bulk email is dying, as older publishing paradigms — now supported by new technology — repeatedly prove themselves much more effective for broadcast communication.