My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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how to kill email

Rumors are (once again) flying around that people are going to be charged for sending email, postage stamp style. The details are uncertain, although the NYTimes has their version; apparently, Yahoo! and AOL are involved in this and there will still be free email, but paid for email will be given priority. The logic is (always has been) that companies should have to pay for bulk mail in order to minimize spam. There are arguments concerning the effectiveness of this and there’s the issue of variable global economies and how this might hinder poorer companies, non-profits, and anyone who doesn’t have the economic capital of the porn industry. There are lots of good arguments on both sides, but i don’t want to focus on that.

What i want to highlight instead is an aspect i haven’t heard discussed in the context of this: email is already dying amongst youth. Right now, most of us in our 20s view postal mail as the site of bills and junk mail; the occasional letter and package is super exciting, but we can almost always predict those (they are usually correlated with birthdays, holidays and the one-click button). For youth, it’s the same story with email – you get notices from parents, adults, companies, junk mail, and the occasional attachment that was announced via IM. Add postage stamps to this and email will become even less valuable; your friends won’t pay for it so the system will highlight the companies over your friends – yuck. Even those who appreciate sending email will be alienated by turning this into a capitalist enterprise. Yuck. Bye bye email, hello IM and SMS and alternative asynchronous message systems. There’s nothing like giving corporations a preferential position in the system to destroy a communications platform.

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15 comments to how to kill email

  • Widespread panic about to ensue over email “postage”

    AOL (and Yahoo) are about to implement Goodmail sender payment systems into their email, and it has already been noted that individuals have little to fear – the process is for bulk mailers. Invariably, there will be a few delivery…

  • Ok, so AOL and Yahoo are back to a relatively old argument about pricing of email but they’ve actually decided to try it for real. I admit, I am intrigued to see the results. However, reading your argument it sounds like you think this is the worst thing they could do and your argument (please correct me if I am wrong, it’s 2am here and I drank too much wine 😉 is that this type of approach would kill e-mail for youth and this is a really bad thing. So this brings up a few questions for me: why should youth care if AOL is charging some companies to send them email and their accounts receive less spam as a result? You say they don’t use email for most of the functions they consider vital (i.e. communication with friends) anyway. If youth don’t really use email anyway, why does it matter whether it gets killed or not? Why is it bad? If this is bad, does that mean you think they need to use email to be full netizens? Is there specific value to email they generally miss out on, by not using it?

    Sorry… more questions than anything, but I am a little confused. As far as I understood, AOL and Yahoo plan to offer this service as an option. You can still send your email and hope it doesn’t get killed by spamassasin if your subject line was too playful or dirty. AOL and YAhoo simply offer you an option to ensure that the email you send will really end up in the other person’s inbox and not in their spam filter. This removes the ability of the other person to pretend they never received it and also signals to them how important the sender percieves this email to be. For all intents and purposes, you never have to use it. In fact, most of the time when you send real snail-mail to friends you don’t use certified mail. So what’s the problem? Capitalism? yes, Yuck? I am not sure.

  • I guess the almighty dollar wina sout in the end, huh? Just passing through, I’m digging the blog by the way..

  • While I’m all in favor of your thinking of IM as the interface of choice for most youth, I think you should finish reading the article on the AOL / Y! + Goodmail pact. They’re charging commercial email senders, not personal ones.

  • Arul – well, the proposal is that anyone could “certify” it as Irina says. Of course, teens won’t pay to do so. But that means that the corporate emails you receive will have greater priority than the ones from your friends. That’s what i was trying to get out towards the end.

    Irina – right now, teens are coming back to email in the workforce because they’re not _that_ anti-email… just don’t see its personal value to them. This move puts an active negative spin on it and i wouldn’t think that either company would want to further deteriorate the value of email in the youth market (particularly since most of their asynchronous communication is occurring through sites like MySpace not them).

    The challenge is that it’s prioritizing paid-for over personal. And it will be visible that way (from what i understand). Teens are certainly not going to pay to get their mail across. And if the spam systems get tighter around the pay-for only, even more personal could get lost. Of course, we all want a little bit of plausible deniability, but not that much. The key to certified mail is also typically that you pay for what is certified to you, not the other way around.

    [As for the “less spam” argument – i’m not actually convinced. But that’s another story.]

  • Marcela

    You make me feel so obsolete at 31 for still using email as a main source of communication with people I know…

  • “The challenge is that it’s prioritizing paid-for over personal.”

    No, it’s not. It is prioritizing paid-for mass email over non-paid-for mass email. The problem is that the number of recipients of an email is one of the heuristics used to identify potential spam. But there are legitimate reasons an organization might send mass email–the reasoning here is that ability to pay can be correlated with credibility. That assumption runs into some issues with non-profits, but I don’t think those issues are insoluble (non-profits could encourage members to whitelist them, or pass the fees along to members in their dues). Personal email is a red herring–it mostly doesn’t suffer from the false positive problem because it doesn’t have massive recipient lists, and no email service is going to piss off its users by not delivering mail from their friends or family. They don’t want to piss them off by accidentally spam-filtering their PG&E bill either, which is why they’re turning to economic solutions.

  • I’m not convinced emil is really dying among youth, at least not in a way that matters. Yeah, teenagers may prefer IM, but once they go to college and join the white collar workplace, email will still be important because it contains things like requests for information from your boss.

  • D

    i wanna archive all my internet communicating, so i only use web-based accounts cuz i wanna be able to access them archives from anywhere without too much set-up fuss. so if only i can easily archive to a web account my im’s, then i’d ditch email.
    -lazy-ass user

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  • ramona

    how can i kill a mail

  • ramona

    how can i kill a mail

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