Category Archives: email

the email tax: an internet myth soon to become true

After years as an Internet urban myth, the email tax appears to be close at hand. The New York TImes reports that AOL and Yahoo have partnered with startup Goodmail to start offering guaranteed delivery of mass email to organizations for a fee. Organizations with large email lists can pay to have their email go directly to AOL and Yahoo customers’ inboxes, bypassing spam filters. Goodmail claims that they will offer discounts to non-profits. and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have joined together to create an alliance of nonprofit and public interest organizations to protest AOL’s plans. They argue that this two-tiered system will create an economic incentive to decrease investment into AOL’s spam filtering in order to encourage mass emailers to use the pay-to-deliver service. They have created an online petition called for people to request that AOL stop these plans. A similar protest to Yahoo who intends to launch this service after AOL is being planned as well. The alliance has created unusual bedfellows, including Gun Owners of America, AFL-CIO, Humane Society of United States and Human Rights Campaign, who are resisting the pressure to use this service.
Part of the leveling power of email is that the marginal cost of another email is effectively zero. By perverting this feature of email, smaller businesses, non-profits, and individuals will once again be put at a disadvantage to large affluent firms. Further, this service will do nothing to reduce spam, rather it is designed to help mass emailers. An AOL spokesman, Nicholas Graham is quoted as saying AOL will earn revenue akin to a “lemonade stand” which further questions by AOL would pursue this plan in the first place. Although the only affected parties will initially be AOL and Yahoo users, it sets a very dangerous precedent that goes against the democratizing spirit of the Internet and digital information.

washington post and new york times hyperlink bylines

In an effort to more directly engage readers, two of America’s most august daily newspapers are adding a subtle but potentially significant feature to their websites: author bylines directly linked to email forms. The Post’s links are already active, but as of this writing the Times, which is supposedly kicking off the experiment today, only links to other articles by the same reporter. They may end up implementing this in a different way.
wapo email byline.jpg
screen grab from today’s Post
The email trial comes on the heels of two notoriously failed experiments by elite papers to pull readers into conversation: the LA Times’ precipitous closure, after an initial 24-hour flood of obscenities and vandalism, of its “wikatorials” page, which invited readers to rewrite editorials alongside the official versions; and more recently, the Washington Post’s shutting down of comments on its “” after experiencing a barrage of reader hate mail. The common thread? An aversion to floods, barrages, or any high-volume influx of unpredictable reader response. The email features, which presumably are moderated, seem to be the realistic compromise, favoring the trickle over the deluge.
In a way, though, hyperlinking bylines is a more profound development than the higher profile experiments that came before, which were more transparently about jumping aboard the wiki/blog bandwagon without bothering to think through the implications, or taking the time — as successful blogs and wikis must always do — to gradually build up an invested community of readers who will share the burden of moderating the discussion and keeping things reasonably clean. They wanted instant blog, instant wiki. But online social spaces are bottom-up enterprises: invite people into your home without any preexisting social bonds and shared values — and add to that the easy target of being a mass media goliath — and your home will inevitably get trashed as soon as word gets out.
Being able to email reporters, however, gets more at the root of the widely perceived credibility problem of newspapers, which have long strived to keep the human element safely insulated behind an objective tone of voice. It’s certainly not the first time reporters’ or columnists’ email addresses have been made available, but usually they get tucked away toward the bottom. Having the name highlighted directly beneath the headline — making the reporter an interactive feature of the article — is more genuinely innovative than any tacked-on blog because it places an expectation on the writers as well as the readers. Some reporters will likely treat it as an annoying new constraint, relying on polite auto-reply messages to maintain a buffer between themselves and the public. Others may choose to engage, and that could be interesting.

the selected, annotated outbox of dave eggers

Email killed the practice of letter-writing so suddenly that we haven’t a chance to think about the consequences. The Times Book Review ran an essay this weekend on the problem this poses for literary historians, biographers and archivists, who long have relied on collected letters and papers to fill in the gaps between a writer’s published work. In the same review, the Times covers a new biography of the legendary critic Edmund Wilson largely based on his correspondences, and last week covered a new collection of the letters of poet James Wright. Letters are often treated as literature in themselves.
email mountain.jpg But a crop of writers is working now whose papers are not in order. The email is rotting away on the network, unorganized, not backed-up, and, to a great extent, simply being lost for good. I actually mused about this in a post last month about an email archive visualization tool by Fernanda Viégas at M.I.T.’s Sociable Media Group that shows years of electronic correspondence as sedimentary levels in a mountain-like mass. And a mountain it is. One novelist I know in Washington has her office stacked high with milk crates containing printouts of each and every email she sends and receives, no matter how trivial. There has to be a better way.
There isn’t necessarily anything less rich about email correspondence. It excels at capturing a vibrant volley of words with great immediacy, whereas paper letters permit deeper communiques, fewer and father between. But in some cases, these characterizations do not hold up. With reliable postal service, letters can fly back and forth quite rapidly. And just because an email suddenly appears in your box does not mean that it will be immediately read, let alone replied to. Sometimes we write long email letters, expecting that the receiver is busy and will take time to reply. These differences, true and false, are worth evaluating.
But if collected emails are to become a literary tool, there is no question that we will need more reliable ways of archiving and preserving digital correspondence. We will also need new editorial approaches for collecting and publishing them. A printed volume, or series of volumes, might be insufficient for presenting a massive 4 gigabyte email archive by Dave Eggers (No one wants to read the phone book from cover to cover). And according to the Times piece, Eggers’ agent Andrew Wylie is mulling over such a project. What would make more sense is an electronic edition that is essentially a selected or complete annotated Eggers Outbox, with folders and tags provided for categorization, a powerful search function, and the ability to organize according to your own interests. There would also be browsing and skimming tools that would allow a reader to move rapidly across vast tracts of correspondence and still find what they are looking for. And maybe, a way to email the author yourself and become a part of the living archive.