Protecting The Inbox

How many emails do you have in your inbox? In general, each one represents a task – something to read, a query to answer, a meeting to book, a bill to pay, a request to fulfill or deny, even a friend’s post to like. Also on your to-do list: Facebook messages, LinkedIn intro requests, twitter direct messages….Whether it’s a social-network message or a your-grandfather’s-style email, it’s all items to handle — all placed there by other people. Yet who prioritizes all of these? Who collects them all in one place or switches among them?

You do, of course. Is that fair? Why should you be burdened with deciding among all these requests? Isn’t there some way the senders could take on some of that responsibility?

Of course, that’s already happening in part. Facebook is deciding what to show you. You decide which people to follow on Twitter (and thus who can DM you). LinkedIn charges people to send more than a certain number of intro emails, and penalizes people who send too many unwelcome messages. At the other end of the quality spectrum, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft (among others) filter spam using everything from content analysis to sender behavior to various methods of authentication.

But these all leave the burden on the recipient; the system lets other people add things to my to-do list. (I once thought of publishing my to-do list, so that people could see how busy I am and stay away, but in the end that requires too much self-awareness and discretion from senders.)

There is another way. It requires the sender to figure out what matters, and to put money behind their bet.

The short version of this is that the sender has to pay to send mail, while the recipient can set the price. Of course, that notion provokes all kinds of angst: What happens to poor but worthy people? What about friends?

The answer is twofold. The recipient can decide what to charge, and set different prices (including free) for different people or categories, and can even forgive the charges retroactively. It won’t be too much work, because there will be services that will handle it all for you; that’s the business opportunity! The basic service sets a single price, but higher-end services offer (and charge for, in commissions) as much complexity as anyone could want. There will be variations with interfaces to LinkedIn, Facebook and the like, different prices for different kinds of senders or requests…as complex as you want.

Or, if you don’t want to make lots of decisions, the provider will let you select from a set of defaults. (And if you eschew the commercialization of your time, you can send the money to charity.)

Why should anyone pay to send email when they can do so for free? And isn’t it unfair to cut off access?

In the end, people aren’t paying to send mail; they can indeed do that for free. They are paying someone else to get that person’s attention (or to rise on their priority queue, to put it more politely). You can go on sending free email all you like, but if you want to get the attention of certain people, busy people, you have to pay. (Isn’t that more democratic than having to join a club or undergo an interview with their assistant to meet them?)

Initially, the “customer base” may be just a small set of people who currently use other forms of friction to protect themselves: assistants, publicists, family offices or simply ignoring anything that doesn’t come from a trusted friend. (Personally, I act as one of many gatekeepers to a variety of famous friends and acquaintances. No, I do not think that Marissa would like to buy your company….)

Another way may be to join groups — most likely closed groups — that allow free messages among members, whether that’s a LinkedIn group of Harvard alumni or a constructed group of members of a board of directors, Meetup moms or anyone writing from a Yahoo-inc.com corporate email address.

From the sender side, the initial reaction may be, “Why can’t I reach this person without paying?” But over time, more people will say, “Hey, I want this too! I can’t afford a personal assistant to screen my mail, but this way I can push the burden back to the senders, who have to figure out whether I’m likely to want their message and respond in the way they hope.”

That’s how the market will start. Over time, a variety of specialist service providers will emerge – sometimes as single-topic experts, and sometimes as general mail managers. On the one hand, mail recipients can set their prices for different kinds of mail/requests/senders. The mail managers will also (as specified by the recipient) handle incoming Facebook, LinkedIn and other requests. They will collect credit card information from the senders (or more likely charge their Paypal accounts as a variety of payment systems emerge to make this all seamless). The recipient is unlikely to see the complexities; most of this will be handled in the background. To start, you can simply set your price at, say, $1, along with a list of people who can message you for free.

Over time, a couple of useful things will happen: companies will insist on a more careful distinction between corporate and personal email address use. For example, Yahoo! may collect $1 on behalf of its employees when they get mail. But Yahoo! may also have a white list of potential advertisers, who will all be writing from their corporate email accounts.

As for consumer customers, most companies already make you pay… by requiring you to fill in annoying, detail-oriented forms that ask for a bunch of irrelevant bits of information before you can send a webmail request for help. They will probably keep that avenue, and add a $10 email hotline address. (Disclosure: I am an investor in direct.ly, a third-party service that offers paid support from former employees and other experts in a non-email version of this idea. I was also an investor in Boxbe, which started out with sender-pays email but eventually pivoted. I think the time is now becoming right.)

Meanwhile, both senders and recipients (through their agents) will spur the use of verified email addresses, where messages are “signed” and stamped with metadata to validate their source. Most senders such as banks and Paypal already sign their mail, but most recipient mail tools don’t require that, which is why you still get bogus mail from Paypal and banks (though much of it actually comes from easily-detectable accounts such as JPMogan or HSDC).

Won’t some people simply try to get rich by charging for incoming mail that they never read? Caveat sender! Indeed, the point of this exercise is to get senders to consider more carefully to whom they send mail…and anyone foolish enough to send mail to people who merely want their money deserves what they get — or lose.

Does this put more of a burden on senders? Of course. But the burden needs to go somewhere, and putting it back on the side of the creators of the mail proliferation problem makes sense. In this system, those who send and receive the most mail will deal with the most complexity, often creating a business opportunity for others. And those who send only a small amount of mail will be able to negotiate directly with the recipients for any messages that are wanted.

There will be lots of glitches at the beginning, starting with people you know who have multiple email addresses, old friends not in your current white list, and so on. But over time such challenges willl diminish… and as less mail gets sent, a higher proportion of it will be wanted and answered. A little bit of friction can revive the miracle of email.

Esther Dyson, a scheduled speaker at the 2013 Web Summit, is an investor in a variety of online start-ups, mostly in the U.S. and Europe, , focused on online services, healthy behavior and space travel. She also writes a monthly column for Project Syndicate, where a version of this essay also appears.

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