In Part 1, I looked at Chris Anderson’s call for an email charter, declared it a failure, and said it ought to be done anyway. Because ultimately, the failure is meaningless and hides a potential for much success, and the fact that we won’t get 100% success out of the project doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
I suggested that protecting the commons of email would require more than asking everyone nicely to behave. I feel comfortable saying that, because 25+ years of history here on the net shows that any commons will ultimately be destroyed if the primary protection to it is purely voluntary.
It’s interesting to compare email and USENET here; email is in fact older than USENET, and they were originally built with the same general design esthetics, which boiled down to “we’re all mature adults here, we know how to behave”. Which worked, as long as the internet was small and we all knew each other and peer pressure had some value in moderating behavior. As soon as the internet grew into something the general public had heard of and started getting involved in, it because a resource to use, and for some, that meant it became a resource to exploit, and down that road lies spam in all its glory.
And yet for all our bitching, USENET is for all practical purposes dead and buried, and here we are, once again worrying that it’s only a matter of time before email implodes and dies. Only if you look at Chris’s argument, it’s not spam burying email, it’s sloppy and lazy usage.
Without realizing it, Chris has declared that the spam problem in email has been solved. And it has. Not 100%, but honestly, for most of us, Spam is rarely more than a minor annoyance. And that’s because a lot of people put a lot of time and energy into building big, nasty fences with barbed wire and electricity and lasers and nasty things on them to protect the commons of email from the people who wanted to exploit it until they killed it, the way they did USENET (where we never did figure out how to build that wall in time).
And that’s my point; to solve the problems Chris wants to solve, you can ask and lecture and write charters and build guidelines all you want, and if adoption is voluntary, it will fail. It will partially succeed — and that’s what makes the charter a worthy goal in its failure — but it’ll fail.
If you want to fix these problems, you have to go beyond asking nicely. You have to build walls, with gates, and locks, and people with sharp pointed sticks to keep those people on the outside from climbing over the gate if you don’t want them in.
Where the spam problem was ultimately solved at the mail server level; the issues Chris is worried about are smaller and more personal. He’s going to find that the devil is in the details: 90% of us are going to agree with his recommendations 90% of the time; that other 10% is likely to create endless arguments and the occasional flamewar, and accomplish little more than stress and frayed relationships.
Having been down this path more than once, it’s my view that these kind of things are intensely personal, and we all have different preferences and hot buttons. Remember HTML email? That used to be a hot button that caused a lot of fights. Today, I’d guess maybe 2% of the population gives a damn enough to strip HTML out of email, and 90% of email users would say “HTML? what’s that?”
Remember the days of pitched battles over “reply-to” in mailing lists? Honestly, 20 years later, the only reason we can possibly claim it’s “fixed” is that nobody really cares any more, except that last 1-2%. or top posting vs. inline replies? Or bottom posting? Name your poison.
Given that I’ve been involved in this for so long, and email was what I made my living in for a good number of years, and the servers I’ve built have sent god knows how many billion emails with my hand on the rudder, I’ve been in many of these arguments, sometimes on both sides at the same time. I’ve been yelled at, chastised, ambused, laughed at, ridiculed, thanks, honored, bought beers, offered chocolate, and more times than I can count, been asked my opinion.
And the one thing I’m firmly convinced of is that asking other people to change their behavior to do things that way you prefer is the wrong way to solve these problems, because nobody can, or will, want to remember the email preferences of the various people in their address book. Let’s see, these 80 people want inline responses, but those 15 want topposted responses, and Jeff, he insists on bottom posting or he won’t read it. Yeah, I’ll remember that. And jeremy doesn’t read email sent between 10PM and noon, while jason throws out emails on Saturdays because he’s Jewish, and…
See how quickly that system breaks down? I certainly can’t remember that; it’s not worth my time (and amusingly enough, what Chris is complaining about is how other people’s use of email effectively eats his time; his response is through effectively asking them to do things that shift the burden the other way. So if I were to ask Chris, for instance, to only send me email in 18 Point type colored red and never use italics, do you think he’d remmeber? and actually do it? Or would he see that as a burden on his already burdened time? So right from the start, how are people going to respond to his asking them to take on more of the burden in email to ease his? Like they aren’t also burdened by all of this?
That’s why the “let’s all be nice and play together right” fails.
If you want to solve this, then, you have to take responsibility into your own hands; and that means you need to have (or build, or have built) tools to enable that. That means pushing for better and intelligent email clients that can learn how you want your email — how to format it, how to prioritize it, how to manage it, how to leverage your time to maximize your efficiency and interest. And then teach your mail system to manage your incoming your email your way. Beacuse telling everyone else to do it the way you want fails when you stop to realize 50 other people are telling those people the same thing, and none of the 50 requests match up into a single set of options.
Now, I’ve had this discussion with people over the years; rarely is it well-received. People don’t want to do the work to make their life easier. they want to tell other people to do the work to make their life easier. I did have one person who actually DID send me all my email for about six months in 18 point bright red text, just to try to prove a point, but I’m not sure what point that was, other than it was unique that only one person in all of those discussions actually DID it, and he stopped when he got bored of trying to prove a point. Was I being pedantic in my request? Oh, absolutely. but that was the point.
Ultimately, if you want to fix this, you have to control your own destiny, not push it out on others. Most email clients have rudimentary tools and filters that can do a lot; the technology here is still pretty crude and brutal (although Apple’s Lion looks interesting in how they’re doing some smart formatting things and fixing that wart on email’s face). But; technology clients that learn from what you do to predict what you want done? intelligent agents that you teach to act as a personal secretary? Nobody’s really cracked this year; it’s long overdue. But if you really want this solved, that’s where the solution lies. Not in documents or playing nice.
Computers have gotten massively more powerful and smarter over the years. We should take advantage of that to solve problems like these. If you push out your ideas of “how this should work” to others, you’ll get some level of cooperation and some improvement for some group of like-minded people for some relatively low level of investment.
But figure out how to enhance tools to learn and predict and leverage your time and do the grunt work for you? That’s where the solution really lies. Because then, even if what you want is 18 point red type and no italics, it’s a matter of teaching your client to do that. I looked into this ten years ago, and the processing power really wasn’t there yet. Now? I bet it is, with the right people and the right attitude — to give everyone the power to customize their experience to their expectations rather than build standardized walls that sort of work most of the time for most people. Mostly.
And that’s where I suggest this discussion really go, if what you want is a real solution; The charter is a good starting point, quick and low-intensity, and can do real good. But the real solution is in enhancing the client tools to empower a user to customize their environment and teach the environment to act as an agent for an individual. Not easy tasks, but maybe now we’re far enough along to make something that’s useful…. Worth a try?