Does email have a future?

An email box folder littered with spam messages.
Image via Wikipedia

To anyone who sits, as I do, in front of an email program every day waiting for something new or who, again as I do, carries around a BlackBerry, awaiting the next instruction, the title of this blog might seem slightly silly.

But I know my children, who are never away from the computer, hardly ever touch email and although email is undoubtedly the first of the social media it is the one least regarded by any campaigner or professional communicator.

And reading on in John Naughton‘s A Brief History of the Future: Origins of the Internet it is very difficult these days to share his excitement about the medium – even though I too was once a True Believer. Naughton writes of email’s “hypnotic attraction” and of people “raving about the wonders of email”: does anyone (at least in the West) feel that way today?

Perhaps it is familiarity that has bred contempt, especially when so many office workers can feel like slaves to the system. Perhaps it is the poor quality of most (all?) email clients: the multitude of clicks to read attachments and close messages and so on can be wearing.

But there is more I fear. Spam has taken a terrible toll on email’s credibility. It seems strange to think that little more than a decade ago it was actually quite rare. Now it is so ubiquitous that I doubt that even the fine range of cruel and unusual punishments I would happily subject spammers to would suffice to kill it off (even if it killed some of them). Surely one of the reasons why other social media are popular is because they do give you more power to shut off the spammer (they also have better interfaces generally, also).

But the ability to email anyone for a legitimate reason seems to me to be a positive thing: MPs and others in public office, for instance, should not find it too easy to cut off the flow of public information.

But it is also plain that SMTP email is not up to the job. We have resisted a paradigm shift because the installed base was so high, but actually the whole thing has been crumbling beneath our feet.

What to replace it with? Could a system of distributed public/private key verification work? (Users sign emails with private keys while the signature is verified by a public key – if public key and email address do not match the email is junked and bad senders can be excluded by blacklisting their address).

Maybe, but there seems to be little commercial imperative in it, so it will either arise spontaneously or be sponsored by government and that might raise other concerns.

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