Clogged email inbox? Economics may be able to help you out…

The other night I caught the film ‘Second Skin’, showing at the World Cinema Showcase. Second Skin an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game – think World of Warcraft or Second Life) documentary about virtual worlds and the real lives they effect. It’s a decent watch.

On the film they interviewed a “virtual world economist”, Edward Castronova, about the markets that have evolved in these online games. I went to check this guy’s website and stumbled across a product that intrigued me.

Seriosity have developed a product called Attent™, which involves assigning a monetary value to emails to signal their importance. The problem that this product is trying to solve is that so many emails are sent around each day that it is difficult to efficiently determine which emails are truly important, while senders tend to send more emails than is optimal (such information overload apparently costs US corporations hundreds of billions of dollars per year).

When senders ‘pay’ to send their email, their behaviour naturally changes so that potentially less, better quality emails are sent. Emails are visibly tagged with a currency value that signals the importance of the message, which improves efficiency at the readers’ end.

Whether such pay-to-send technology takes off remains to be seen (there is an obvious issue of critical mass) but I thought it was a tidy way of incentivising potentially welfare-enhancing behaviour.

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  • Neat idea. I wonder if it will give rise to something like reverse spam – websites set up to look genuine and encourage email in some way just to harvest Serios. Dating sites would work pretty well, I imagine.

    Castronova was interviewed on Econtalk a while ago.

  • rainman

    Sorry, but this has to be done:

    Your post advocates a

    ( ) technical ( ) legislative (X) market-based ( ) vigilante

    approach to fighting spam. your idea will not work. here is why it won’t work. (one or more of the following may apply to your particular idea, and it may have other flaws which used to vary from state to state before a bad federal law was passed.)

    ( ) spammers can easily use it to harvest email addresses
    ( ) mailing lists and other legitimate email uses would be affected
    (X) no one will be able to find the guy or collect the money
    ( ) it is defenseless against brute force attacks
    ( ) it will stop spam for two weeks and then we’ll be stuck with it
    (X) users of email will not put up with it
    ( ) microsoft will not put up with it
    ( ) the police will not put up with it
    (X) requires too much cooperation from spammers
    ( ) requires immediate total cooperation from everybody at once
    ( ) many email users cannot afford to lose business or alienate potential employers
    ( ) spammers don’t care about invalid addresses in their lists
    ( ) anyone could anonymously destroy anyone else’s career or business

    specifically, your plan fails to account for

    ( ) laws expressly prohibiting it
    (X) lack of central controlling authority for email
    (X) open relays in foreign countries
    ( ) ease of searching tiny alphanumeric address space of all email addresses
    ( ) asshats
    (X) jurisdictional problems
    (X) unpopularity of weird new taxes
    ( ) public reluctance to accept weird new forms of money
    (X) huge existing software investment in smtp
    ( ) susceptibility of protocols other than smtp to attack
    ( ) willingness of users to install os patches received by email
    ( ) armies of worm riddled broadband-connected windows boxes
    ( ) eternal arms race involved in all filtering approaches
    ( ) extreme profitability of spam
    ( ) joe jobs and/or identity theft
    ( ) technically illiterate politicians
    ( ) extreme stupidity on the part of people who do business with spammers
    (X) dishonesty on the part of spammers themselves
    ( ) bandwidth costs that are unaffected by client filtering
    ( ) outlook

    and the following philosophical objections may also apply:

    (X) ideas similar to yours are easy to come up with, yet none have ever been shown practical
    ( ) any scheme based on opt-out is unacceptable
    (X) smtp headers should not be the subject of legislation
    ( ) blacklists suck
    ( ) whitelists suck
    ( ) we should be able to talk about viagra without being censored
    ( ) countermeasures should not involve wire fraud or credit card fraud
    ( ) countermeasures should not involve sabotage of public networks
    ( ) countermeasures must work if phased in gradually
    ( ) sending email should be free
    ( ) why should we have to trust you and your servers?
    ( ) incompatiblity with open source or open source licenses
    ( ) feel-good measures do nothing to solve the problem
    ( ) temporary/one-time email addresses are cumbersome
    ( ) i don’t want the government reading my email
    ( ) killing them that way is not slow and painful enough

    furthermore, this is what i think about you:

    (X) sorry dude, but i don’t think it would work.
    ( ) this is a stupid idea, and you’re a stupid person for suggesting it.
    ( ) nice try, assh0le! i’m going to find out where you live and burn your house down!

  • Moz

    It sounds like an excellent idea. I give my credit card details to some random website, then set up an account which allows me to send files through their servers to other people who have done the same. If I receive more files (or data?) than I send, they pay me. If that happens all I’m paying is the interest and transaction fees. And worrying that someone will steal my details and rob my account, but since they need authority to bill me any extra I can just refuse the new charges if that happens.

    The only question is how this company proposes destroy all the existing email infrastructure and force people to use their new system?

  • I’m sure I have seen research that suggested making people pay for both incoming and outgoing email was a way to deal with spam. But I no longer remember where.

  • @Moz

    “The only question is how this company proposes destroy all the existing email infrastructure and force people to use their new system?”

    They don’t need to. As I understand it, it’s still SMTP with a bit of information tacked on. There will be network effects on how useful it is, but it will be very useful to some people well before it gets adopted on a mass scale. The website seems to be selling it on an intra-organization basis. That seems to be where it will prove most useful in the short term, with dense networks and a central control point solving the coordination problem of switching to a new technology.

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  • Moz

    @Brad, the core problem is that it’s of little use to anyone who needs access to email until everyone uses it. For those who can constrain their needs to only communicating with other customers of the walled garden it will work from when they sign up until the moment another customer gets hacked. For the wider market, as long as they still have to accept email they will still get spammed, and they will still have to wade through the spam making sure there’s nothing in that of value to them.

    As more people sign up to the walled garden the odds that some of them will be p0wned by spammers increases, and at some point the spammers will add code to detect and use the walled garden. At that point it gets interesting, because even at 1c/email a couple of thousand emails going out from your computer is going to be enough to disconcert you. Especially when it happens every day until you manage to disinfect your computer. Better hope McAfee is on the ball.

    For a large company with thousands of computers (and a correspondingly large volume of legitimate walled garden traffic) a single day of infection could cost the walled garden an awful lot of credibility (and customers), because they will be able to hit every single customer multiple times. It’s likely that spammers will regard the walled garden as a desirable market, and if the garden works well enough for people not to filter it we could see spamming techniques rolled back to the very early days when spam read like junk mail rather then being designed to get through filters.

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