Is e-mail failing us?

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

There is a common understanding among Internet users that e-mail is one of the most trusted technologies around. Want to quit your job? E-mail your boss! Declare your flame to your boyfriend? Fire up Pine! Get information on applications for the fall semester at NYU? Hover to! After all, it all seems so easy: type a few words, enter a generally easy to understand address and your missive is on its merry way, bouncing from MX record to MX record until it arrives in the hand of its giddy recipient.

This however fails to take into account one of this century's most painful truths: e-mail, after so many years of being relied on, still doesn't work reliably — and I'm not talking about SPAM here but rather about the very structure of the network.

An e-mail message, while it travels through the wires is constantly forwarded from server to server, until it reaches you, meaning a misconfigured relay can greatly delay or compromise delivery. Sure, servers are normally configured to queue messages and bounce them back if required but we all know there is large gap between "normal" configurations and de facto ones. Most postmasters have to deal with more messages per second than anyone humanely can keep an eye on. Others aren't even postmasters at heart and have been politely asked to tinker with Sendmail and BIND if they wanted to keep their job. Finally, as the saying goes, "shit happens": servers get compromised, links go down…

Sure, technology has an infinite capacity to get back on its feet, as the general reliability of e-mail shows but it still isn't perfect. What's more, with no standard way to ensure that a mail has been received (I'm not talking about "read", here, simply received), we are left "assuming" that a message reaches its recipient. I have been on the web for a long enough time to know e-mails get lost but many people don't take that into account.

The result? Over the past months, I would have lost a rather large business deal, a couple good friends and brownie points at my bank had I not taken upon myself to mail someone because "I just thought that maybe they had sent me a mail I hadn't received". Being constantly on the lookout for mail that doesn't arrive is tiring but, alas, increasingly necessary.

My e-mail accounts span providers, networks, technologies and countries. In that, I cannot lay the blame on one specific provider when something goes wrong. The more filters, checks and blocks we put on the way of e-mail messages, the more likely we are to disrupt that fundamental technology that has been built for a world where information flowed a lot more freely.

So, if you haven't heard from me lately, mail me back! ;^)


2005-09-27 01:39:08
More than that.
There is more behind. It always is. There is this trend towards making oneself dependent on structures that had never been really good for more than playing around with them. (Now that's a bit overdone but you know what I mean).

In other words (and that REALLY happened!):

The day I learmt more and more people in Germany start using the VoIP-service recently offerd as a bundle with IP-Providers --- the day I learnt they REALLY make themselves depentent on not only a perfectly double-checked and "fail save" electricity supply but dependent on the Internet with not only mail or so but with their very telephone comm, the day I learnt THIS I startet to learn how to kindle a fire with my bare hands (flint or stick with bow or so).

Believe me, we will need it.
And a society so dependent on luxury (that's what it is!) like electricity or the www deserves its extinction.....

2005-09-27 02:13:53
I thought you were going to take the opposite point
I thought you were going to take the opposite point.

It's SO easy for people to just fire off an email to me, that hundreds of people do it who really shouldn't.

Any little whim that comes into their mind becomes my damn responsibility to answer, now.

I'd like to make it harder to contact me. Stop using email. Get a Post Office box. Tell people if it's important, to mail me a letter. That will cut out 99% of the little whimsical questions and comments I get each day.

2005-09-27 02:19:28
More than that.

First of all, thank you very much for taking the time to post and share your views with us, I really do appreciate it! :^)

It is true that we collectively tend to rely on structures that were never meant to be relied on and that, to a certain extent, we often ask for trouble by putting undue trust into technologies we haven't tested enough and some of the core Internet networking technologies are a prime example of that.


2005-09-27 02:20:53
I thought you were going to take the opposite point

It is true that the apparent facility of using e-mail can lead to abuse and painful mistakes something any business postmaster has to deal with on a daily basis.


2005-10-20 11:16:42
Some random thoughts, to get started.

My new boss doesn't tend to use Subject: for his emails, so I had to change my email filters to keep from trashing his work-related emails.

Last time I used software that displayed number of spam-trashed messages, I was getting, oh, about 10,000 per day, literally.

That was over a year ago, and I've since switched to different filtering, different client etc, so I've got NO IDEA how many emails get sent to me that I never read.

I'm sure some of them are real email I actually would have wanted.

This is only going to get worse, not better.

I can educate the people I know who send me email that shouldn't have, to a large degree.

I even got my sister to stop sharing the really good (sic) chain-mail-humor emails she sometimes gets.

If a "friend" turns out to be truly uneducable in this regard, well, I'll just filter their email into Trash and tell them I no longer have email.

But somebody else is gonna have to solve the problem of the junk-mailers, or email will become useless.

Things I've already given up:
eBay: can't tell real from fake, can't bid/pay timely fashion, can't use.
PayPal: ditto.
Amazon: ditto, plus they spammed me. Plus they want to charge me $40/year when they don't manage to sell my stuff at a rate to sustain that.
Real: They spammed me, I won't use their software. Plus their software sucks. As does their whole attitude towards sales/free software.

I suspect I'll be migrating more and more real communication with people I want AWAY from email.

The first thing to go will probably be change requests for the zillion websites I maintain.

My Inbox is not the right place for that, any more. Which is a shame, as it worked quite well for many many years.

I believe email communication is pretty much doomed, in the long run, if the signal/noise ratio cannot be turned around within a few years.

The spam volume is increasing exponentially. The real email is not. Do the math.