In Dale’s recent post, “Another War We’re Not Winning: Us vs Spam“, he asked if the war against spam is winnable, or if email will go the way of Usenet, drowned in abuse of the system. I liked a lot of the answers Dale collected, but I don’t think it is possible to lose this war.
Prophecies of Internet doom were so common on Usenet that there was a stock joke to dismiss the doomsayers: “Death of Internet predicted — film at 11.” I always think of that line when I see these conversations. What some of Dale’s respondents are saying is that the joke eventually proved true, and email is next. I don’t think at all, though, that Usenet simply drowned in spam; I think that Usenet still exists, but now we call newsgroup posts “Blogs.” It didn’t scale to have one group where all the discussion of politics on the Internet could take place, so instead people use their own blog to post their political views, and you subscribe to the person instead of the topic. The activity is the same even if the form is different. Spam was a big force for this change, but so was the massive growth in the Internet population at large.
(Of course, Usenet literally still exists, too, in the form of Google Groups. The interface and character have both changed a lot, but the niche still supports life.)
I believe the same adaptation will happen to email. I’ve been testing 37signals’ upcoming product, Highrise. One thing I love about it is that it serves as a layer on top of my inbox, and it makes my inbox a lot more manageable and workable for me. Even when I wake up and find a ton of spam in my inbox, there’s a way to get work done and respond to the important things by using a tool that extracts what I need from the email morass. You can easily imagine some new form of application emerging to deal with the problem of open email receipt from any source, and Highrise is a good early example of that model.
Maybe the form of email will change; and maybe the form of spam will change with it (like newsgroup spam became blog comment spam). But the idea of writing a message from one person to another is certainly here to stay, and talking about a change in the form of email makes a lot more sense to me than declaring this war lost.