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Why is email so very complicated?

People have always asked me questions about the work I’ve done on email technology, but the most commonly asked questions have changed radically over the last thirty years. ”What’s email?” used to be the most common by far, but I haven’t heard it in a remarkably long time. For a few painful months in 1985, the most common question I heard was “why is email so unreliable?”

Later there was an idyllic period when what I heard most was, “how can I get all my friends and family to use email?” — for a brief period, it felt like we were changing the world entirely for the better.

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Unfortunately, of course, once dotty Aunt Millie joined the net, their gullibility attracted the attention of scammers and spammers, and soon the most common question became, and for a long time remained, “why am I getting so much spam?”

Recently, however, I’ve noted a new trend, perhaps suggesting a certain maturation of the technology and its users. Once they’ve heard enough discourses on the causes (many) and prognosis (poor) of the spam problem, most people seem to gravitate towards a deeper and better question: “Why is Email so Complicated?”

But why?
I’d venture to guess that most common cause of complexity, in a wide range of situations, is simple quantity. Consider, for example, the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell connected two prototypes by a single simple wire, just in time for Mr. Watson to hear his famous cry for help. Watson would have heard nothing, however, if their devices had been separated not by a single wire, but by a complex network of wires and switches, requiring interconnection either by human operators or, later, automatic switching machines, analog to digital conversion, time slice multiplexing, and conversion of electrical signals to optical ones and back again.

At a minimum, Bell would have had to initiate a connection, and Watson would (probably) have had to accept it. The simple idea of an audio connection between Bell and Watson inevitably became insanely complicated to support billions of humans wanting to talk.

Or consider postal mail. The concept is simple: ”Joe, give this letter to Bill.” But by the time there are six billion Joes and Bills, spread all over the planet, we end up with high speed sorting machines and optical addresses readers, along with international mail tariffs and regulations and endless variations on delivery speed, confirmation, and price.

People complain about email more than these other technologies, not just because it is newer but because it doesn’t seem to work quite as smoothly, despite being almost automated. Some of this is attributable to its success: The zero incremental cost of an email message has pretty much eliminated pricing as a mechanism for regulating the flow. This has brought us such obvious problems as spam and phishing, and also the more subtle problems of email overload, email-driven prioritization, and accidental over-disclosure of information by email.

Every few years, someone makes a sincere and serious-sounding attempt to redesign a simpler version of email, in the hope of solving some of these problems. For a host of reasons, I don’t think any of them will ever work. I think, instead, that it is time to begin to come to grips with the inherent complexity of email — most of which is equally true of other forms of informal communication on the net.

This is a complex topic, and would be hard enough to encompass in a serious and lengthy book that few people would read. With this post, therefore, I’m initiating a series of short essays devoted to specific aspects of the complexity of modern email. I’m going to try to cover it all if I live long enough, but if you have specific questions you’d like me to try to answer before senility sets in, I’d be happy to give it a go. For reasons I can’t even pretend to understand, I never get tired of answering questions about email!

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