The End of Email
Like others, in the past week I’ve noticed a major uptick in the spam I receive on longstanding email addresses. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve configured Gmail to scoop up the mail from those boxes so it can do its own junk mail sorting, and then I POP the mail into my Eudora client from Gmail. It’s taken me from downloading email where more than 9 out of 10 are spam to fewer than 1 out of 10 as spam — with the spam sitting harmlessly on Gmail.
But this is a good time to point out something beyond the cat-and-mouse of spam-and-filter: email is dying.
Email is the last great “shared hallucination” applications of the Internet. The Internet itself is a shared hallucination — built to allow the routing of packets without any particular central coordination or backbone — and first uses to which it was put are similarly able for anyone to step up to the plate and join. Internet Relay Chat can be done with anyone setting up a chat server; Usenet newsgroups — what we know today as message boards and what dimly live on within Google Groups — could be created by anyone, and their propagation would depend on the individual decision of each newsgroup server operator on whether to subscribe to it.
Newsgroups and IRC were overrun by spammers and crooks, and they have been subsumed by alternatives. There are still some people who use IRC for nostaglic purposes or because they’re on very low bandwidth, but its most prominent use today is as a way for zombie computers to listen in at a designated server and channel for instructions from its master. Newsgroups appear like the walking dead themselves, with most of the conversations they hosted now carried on elsewhere. The alternatives to each are within walled gardens, proprietary alternatives of the sort that used to run on CompuServe and AOL. Indeed, a lot of Web 2.0 is based within proprietary servers, available for outside use only with the ongoing indulgence of the sponsoring firms.
So too goes email. If one were denied email in 1997 it would eliminate much of the Internet’s usefulness. Today it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Indeed, most students today rarely use email, preferring instant messaging, Facebook, Myspace, and other private messaging attached to a proprietary service. The benefit of these alternatives is that, because they’re run by a central source, there’s an extra custodian who can take a hard line against spam and other abuse. Myspace doesn’t do such a great job at it, but try spamming on Facebook and you’ll quickly lose your account.
The drawback is that the vision behind a common application like email — one where any PC can announce itself as a mailserver — is dismissed. And as natural monopolies form, there will be new gatekeepers who can implement content control, who can decide to charge or not, or who can terminate or deny membership. Email is clearly broken, and the various anti-spam tricks designed to extend its life can only go so far. But it’s sad to see the last great shared app eclipsed. …JZ