E-Mail Moves to Social Networks

E-mail is moving rapidly from the open Internet to the comparatively safe environs of social network web sites.

The problems with open e-mail, delivered according to Internet e-mail standards, have been well known for more than a decade. I wrote six years ago that “it is just a matter of time before spam completely overwhelms the e-mail system.”

At that time, there was a movement underway to remedy some of the flaws in the email standard. Unfortunately, those plans quickly devolved into schemes for large business enterprises to exert more control over the message people sent and received, while charging a per-message fee for some or all email messages. One such plan had a lot to do with bringing down American Online when in 2004 it began to filter messages according to political content. America Online miraculously avoided shutting down, but it went from being the largest email server to being a non-player on the Internet.

People have adapted to make spam less of a threat than it was six years ago, but the compromises involved are something of a mess:

The multi-pronged attack on spam has merely allowed open e-mail to hold its own these last few years. There is still a considerable risk that a massive spam attack one day could render the entire open e-mail system useless. In addition to spam, there are other security threats associated with open e-mail, ranging from viruses to stalkers. A redesigned e-mail standard could eliminate most of these threats, but no such change is on the horizon.

The main reason spam is not becoming a bigger and bigger problem is that people are relying less and less on open e-mail. By at least one estimate, Internet users already send more messages through the e-mail features of social networking sites than through e-mail programs.

Social network e-mail doesn’t even use e-mail addresses, so no one can send you a message there just by adding your address to a list. This limitation and others greatly reduce the potential for spam, so that if you get an e-mail message in the social network, you can be pretty sure it is from someone you know, or at least from someone who knows something about you.

Messaging services, designed to carry one-line messages, are also starting to replace e-mail. These services by nature have some kind of social network around them, as attempts at instant messaging without a social network were rapidly overrun by spam. Experts are debating whether the more message-oriented Twitter or the more social-oriented Facebook currently carries more messages, but either way, it’s a combination of messages and a network.

Collaboration sites are also taking some of the volume out of e-mail. People working together on something no longer have to send e-mail messages back and forth. Instead, they can comment directly on online documents and lists they are working on.

Even if all your friends are in your social network, open e-mail is still necessary. You might use it for password recovery, web store purchases, and writing to (or receiving messages from) strangers, but these are, for most of us, not everyday tasks. When you consider all its problems, it seems likely that open e-mail’s best days are already in the past.

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