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The Email Foundation is Cracking

In the old days, before spam had taken hold, before the Internet had become something that a vice president wanted to claim credit for creating, and before the media became so enamored with the latest goings on in CyberSpace, email was reliable.  It was more reliable than the US Post Office.  It was a pleasure to get email.

I can remember that I used to be thrilled when I dialed up my modem and opened my POP mail client – or further back logged into a Unix Shell account and got my mail.  It was a thrill to be able to speak with friends who were far away but who had somehow found their way to the Internet.

Those days are long gone.  The foundation of email as we know it is cracking and we’re all seeing it.  Here’s what’s happening that we may not be seeing.

Second Order Effects of SPAM

If you ask anyone about unsolicited commercial email, SPAM, you’ll hear about all of the lost time. You’ll hear about the latest in body part enhancements, the newest investment opportunity, or perhaps about a poor man in Nigeria who needs someone to accept billions of dollars.  SPAM is an annoying and unfortunate reality of email on the Internet today.

If you read any statistics about email you’ll quickly realize that SPAM is growing at a rate disproportional to the overall growth of email.  My own incoming mail is approximately 50% spam, 2% viruses, and who knows how much useless mail.  The estimates for corporate email system is that more than 80% of the mail coming in is SPAM.

These sobering statistics have forced nearly every organization to take actions to defend against it.  Real-time Blacklists, heuristic scanning, pattern matching, reverse DNS lookup, and other techniques are layered together to form a defense from SPAM.

This has created a doubt that your message has made it through.  Suddenly the second order effect of SPAM is raising its ugly head.  Instead of having absolute trust that your message will be delivered to the other end you have to consider that your message may have been caught by their SPAM filters.  You have to consider that your SPAM filters may have caught their response.

It’s an unfortunate reality that something that we could once trust implicitly now must be considered fallible.  We must accept that our messages aren’t guaranteed to make it to the other end any longer – not that they ever really were but we may have felt reassured more than we are today.

It seems almost routine now that I hear about messages that don’t make it through because of SPAM filters.  Just this week I had a message that was definitely caught in a SPAM filter.  I myself am starting to realize that I can no longer rely upon email without question.  I must consider the need to follow up.

A Million Straws

Perhaps the way you’re seeing the foundation crack isn’t in the loss of messages but rather in the delay of messages.  It used to be that you could talk to a support technician and send them a file.  Almost before you finished saying the words “The file is on its way” the file was already in the recipients’ inbox.   Today I’m routinely faced with the response “I’m still waiting on your email message.”  The delay in mail systems is getting to be greater.  Even with faster network connections, faster mail servers, and more advanced mail programs, the delay problem is getting worse.

The overall volume of mail that organizations deal with today would have been inconceivable ten years ago.   PostIni (, a mail-forwarding organization, estimates that it processes 1 billion messages every day.    The Congress Online Project ( reported that mail destined for congress increased from 20 million messages in 1998 to 48 million messages in 2000 – and that the load on the servers has created delays of hours – and sometimes days in the delivery of messages.

Is it any wonder why it takes longer for messages to reach the destination today than it did even a few short years ago.  Add to the layers of protection that we now must have to protect against spam, an immense increase in overall volume and it’s not hard to see why we may have to wait several minutes before messages reach their intended destination.

However, this is time that is wasted.  An efficiency we picked up due to technology is the ability to nearly instantly show someone on the other end of the line what we were seeing.  We could attach the corrupted file, the log file, or whatever and it would be whisked silently and quickly away to the destination.  No longer.  It’s not the Pony Express any longer.  It’s your favorite airline’s luggage handler.  Pieces of eMail that are lost or delayed are climbing.


So what does this mean?  It means that the next time you are confronted with someone asking about what the harm is in SPAM messages.  Think beyond the amount of time it takes to read them – think beyond the cost of the internet connectivity.  Think about the costs of the whole war on SPAM.   Think about lost messages and delayed messages and what it does to further reduce the time that we have for our professional careers, our personal lives, and our community.


  1. SPAM is a registered, protected name for Hormel. They do, however, permit spam or Spam for the obvious purposes in the online world.

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