The Magazine

Apres Spam

The next email crisis.

Sep 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 03 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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EMAIL is a slippery medium. For example: Is it good or bad for the art of writing? Both. It devalues the written word; email is so fast and easy to send, correspondents exchange semi-articulate gibberings without a second thought. There used to be good letter writers, but there don't seem to be any good email writers (or barely any). You can see the extent to which email encourages junk prose in those ridiculous smile symbols with which some emailers cuten up their messages. "Email, unlike face-to-face conversation, doesn't allow you to 'send' facial expressions," the beginners' guides explain, in that oppressive "Listen up, kiddies!" tone that afflicts technical-minded people who try to explain software to laymen. "But you can use special symbols to let your correspondent know, 'I'm only kidding!'" Yet writers of ordinary letters have always (somehow or other) let their readers know they were only kidding without including miniature self-portraits as hints. They do this by means of words--the right ones in the right sequence. It's a neat trick.

Yet in some ways, email has been a godsend for writing. In the '70s and early '80s, the personal letter was on the verge of death. As phone service got cheaper, the letters got worse and informality blossomed like ragweed. The personal letter slipped away, until email revived it in a new form. We are still learning how to make the new form work. In some ways it's better than the old one, in many ways worse. In any case, for those of us who would sooner leap off a tall building than pick up the phone (perhaps 85 percent of the pre-cell phone male population), email was a lucky development. Alas, it is already endangered.

Today's big email problem is spam. But the spam problem will be largely solved (or at least brought under control) in the near future, and another huge problem will remain and get worse. Email is important enough to warrant our thinking about the next major problem now.

Spam is a big ugly mess--though hardly unexpected. I watch TV, but nearly all cable channels are junk from my standpoint, from the Fluffy Dogs Channel to Hot-Girls TV. (Those are two separate examples.) And even the ones I like are (mostly) rich in advertisement-junk--some of it merely annoying, some offensive. (Spam can be unspeakable, but TV commercials in which a formerly sick child pitches medicine are lower than anything I have ever seen in email.) I take it for granted that I will have to edit TV junk out, somehow or other. I do not solicit congressional action to clear up the problem. We might end up with the BBC.

Still, spam is bad--and the industry makes it worse by its characteristic klutziness. For example: A main complaint of email users is that they have to waste time every day deleting spam messages from the servers on which they lease their little online garden plots--but such deleting is only necessary because the industry has its head screwed on backwards. In our universe (right here, right now), data storage is dirt cheap and getting cheaper. Disk storage per bit is in effect too cheap to meter, so no one should have to waste time deleting anything, unless he feels like it.

No one should ever have to do anything with a mail message except ignore it, read it, or read and respond. When I see people "cleaning up" their mail files, faithfully stuffing each message into a folder or otherwise file-clerking for a machine, acting as their computer's loyal (albeit menial) employee, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. (Laugh is usually the right answer.) Software should be doing this for you. That's why software exists. And of course nothing should ever be put in a folder; what if it's the wrong folder? Since when have you been so crazy about filing things, anyway? Such tendencies are treatable if they are diagnosed early. Otherwise you will grow up to be a bureaucrat, or already have. Folders and folder hierarchies have been obsolete for 15 years.

But I assume that do-not-spam lists or some kind of pay-per-mail system or both will arrive within a year. Welcome developments, which leave the number one email problem untouched.

Sheer volume has turned email into an unreliable medium. Spam to the side, there is already too much (honest, legitimate) email for people to manage, and so they overlook messages or forget to answer them, in consequence of which conversations peter out into nothing--and no one is quite sure why, or what to do next. Excessive email volume is a fact of life and is never going away. The threat--which is guaranteed to force a massive retreat from this spiffy new medium within a few years unless we solve it--is the growing opacity of email, the Black Hole problem. If you haven't encountered it yet . . . just wait. Spam makes it worse, but it was a problem before spam and will remain long after spam is cured.

Here's how it works. You get an email (maybe longer or more complicated than average, or from someone you don't know); you have no time to respond right now, but you mean to answer--but other emails stack up, and you answer those first--but you still plan to reply--but more emails keep arriving. . . . Meanwhile the sender is wondering: Is he ignoring me on purpose? (I'll cross him off my list and forget about it.) Did he mean to reply, but has since forgotten? (Resend my message.) Or does he still mean to reply and just hasn't gotten around to it? (Don't get mad or resend.) All three possibilities are real, and happen all the time.

As volume rises, more email conversations trail off into nothing for unknown reasons, the medium is devalued further, and the problem gets worse--people set even less store by a mail message, send one out on even less provocation, volume rises, more email conversations trail off into nothing for unknown reasons, the medium is devalued even further.

LUCKILY, there are good ways to deal with an unreliable medium like email--but not enough people know or use them. (And the techniques won't work unless many people use them.) These techniques can't add more hours to your day, but can make email fairly transparent. This is a behavior (not technology) issue--but today's software makes the problem worse, because the obvious techniques (which involve "acknowledgments" and "time outs") require a kind of time awareness that today's software mostly discourages.

Still, a prediction: Protocols like the ones proposed below will be commonplace before long. Probably some large company (having reinvented them for itself) will promulgate them for employees, and we'll be off. I don't claim that my rules are original; I only claim that (so far as I know) nobody uses them. (The "email etiquette" literature is so huge and boring, who can master it all? But chances are, these rules are already out there somewhere.) And the rules don't always apply. They are irrelevant to ongoing conversations that have found their own rhythm, and to exchanges between friends who know what to expect. Email conversations among many parties raise special questions. But you have to start somewhere.

1. THE ACKNOWLEDGMENT RULE: Acknowledge in haste, respond at leisure. When you receive an email, acknowledge it within 24 hours if you can; take a week if you must, but more than that is (ordinarily) too long. An acknowledgment is not an answer. It's a one-liner, something like "thanks for your note; I'll be in touch soon." It tells the sender that his message has got through and that you plan to answer it some day. Once you've acknowledged a message, you should answer within (say) two weeks of sending the acknowledgment.

2. THE RESEND RULE: If an acknowledgment or (later) an answer doesn't arrive in good time, resend your message verbatim. The receiver's time limits dictate the sender's. If your message hasn't been acknowledged a week later, resend it. If the acknowledgment arrives but no answer has materialized two weeks after that, resend. So you get (at the outside) two chances to restart a sputtering conversation--and that's it. (When you resend a message, a discreet "2" or "3" in the subject line should be enough to let the receiver know what's going on.)

Where did the "24 hours, one week, two weeks" time limits come from? I just made them up. Maybe they're wrong. All I can say in their defense is that I've been a faithful emailer since 1982, and they strike me as about right.

If a message arrives and you can answer right away-- be my guest, and forget the acknowledgment. But feel free to acknowledge (and not answer until later) any ordinary email, no matter how brief. A short email isn't necessarily easy to answer. Any substantive answer costs time and concentration.

We can all sympathize with those desperate characters who attach "sender asked to be notified" messages to their outbound email, but such messages have no place in polite society. (When you read one of these booby-trapped emails, a note pops up: "Sender asked to be notified when you read this message--okay to send a notification?") No good. "May I spy on your activities and send back a report?" will never be a tactful question no matter how delicately you phrase it.

Consider how my rules work in a few common situations.

You overlook an email entirely. Especially common in the spam age, but happens regularly for other reasons too. Under my protocol, the sender waits a week; having got no acknowledgment, he then resends--without worrying whether he's waited long enough, whether you want to ignore him and he is intruding on your splendid isolation, etc. The conversation gets a second chance.

You see an email, plan to respond but forget. Especially likely when the email is long or complicated. By sending a quick acknowledgment, you give the sender permission to nudge you (in a reasonable way, after a fair interval). The conversation is less likely to flicker out by accident.

You finally remember to respond, but you've forgotten the details. It suddenly hits you that you intended to answer a message from somebody about some piece you once published--but a message from whom about what? A conscientious correspondent will shoulder his virtual shovel and dig the thing out. In practice, the exchange is probably going nowhere unless the sender decides to try again.

You ignore an email on purpose. In this case you are better off without the protocol. Under the protocol, you will be forced to ignore not only the original but the duplicate. Reform is rarely cost-free.

These rules could be put into effect right now, using any mail system. But they are pointless unless a whole community uses them, and would be a nuisance to apply using conventional mail software.

What's required is a two-button mail-reader. One button is labeled "acknowledge (quick!)," the other "answer (slow!)."

When you press the "acknowledge" button, you see a time-ordered list of all messages you have yet to acknowledge. Also included: repeat messages that await resending--you've sent them once but they have not been acknowledged, or remain unanswered. And acknowledgments received--just to glance at; no action needed.

Maintaining such a list is fairly complicated, but software does the work. Whenever a new message (except an acknowledgment) arrives, the system will ordinarily start a 24-hour timer, put the message on your "acknowledge" list and prepare an acknowledgment to be launched when you are ready. Whenever you kick off a new conversation, the system will start a seven-day timer; when the timer runs out, your original message is hauled out of storage, readied for relaunch, and added to the "acknowledge" list. All these manipulations go on behind the scenes. Pressing "answer" shows you messages you have acknowledged but have not yet responded to.

Everything on "acknowledge" can be dealt with quickly. If you check it several times a day, you can keep up without bogging down. You might deal with "reply" once a week. Bottom line: You keep afloat by relying on mass-processing efficiencies (your time-consuming correspondence is bundled into a neat batch to be dealt with every now and then), and by discreetly relaunching stalled conversations without being obnoxious. Which is exactly what nearly everyone tries to do anyway. But your two lists let you do the obvious thing at minimal cost in overhead, and without driving your correspondents crazy.

I have left out all sorts of difficulties and special cases--and not only because they are boring. They are also pernicious. The software industry tends to start with the details, difficulties, and apparent constraints, and to work timidly upward from there. Complex mediocrity is the usual result. To design software that is simple, powerful, and general (or anything that is simple, powerful, and general), you must start with the overriding goals and the big picture and work downward, forcing technology into the mold you have decreed instead of letting it sprawl slime-mold-like into any shape it naturally favors.

ULTIMATELY we can't go on like this. More and more of the world's business is going online. The online digital universe, the "cybersphere," is turning into a mirror world where every real-world entity has a software doppelgänger. Today's conventional software has no way to cope with such a development.

But there is a way to counteract ever-higher volumes and varieties of online information: by making the interface far simpler and more uniform. Every digital item you own or ever will own will be stored in a single structure. (Various companies, including one I work for, are building this type of software.) This single structure with all your information inside will be accessible from any computer or quasi-computer anywhere. (Any cell phone, laptop, answering machine, TV, automobile.) It will be easy to display, to visualize, to manipulate. Thus, a sort of "information beam" that grows brighter all the time (as more and more information is added), but can be focused easily with pinpoint precision. To handle rich, varied, and voluminous information, you need a simple and uniform package. The book (the physical object--sheets bound on end) is the finest design in history for exactly that reason. A book might be about anything, but all books work the same way. When software design is a tenth as sophisticated as book design, we will be getting somewhere.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.