Email Breakdown – It’s Actually Happening

Has anyone else noticed that email over the past year has become more and more unreliable? We’ve been hearing the Chicken Little stories for years about how the Internet was going to crumble under the weight of spam, viruses, spyware, and other assorted junk. It hasn’t – if anything, it’s faster than ever for more and more people around the world – hardware improvements and infrastructure investments have made it more robust than ever. But somewhere along the way, something bad started to happen with email. I’ve seen estimates that as much as 90% of daily email is spam, and extremely sophisticated anti-spam systems have evolved over the years. Dedicated anti-spam servers with huge blacklists of bad IPs, smart Bayesian filters learning over time to become effective spam blockers, and all sorts of clever solutions for stemming the flow of spam.  You’d think we’d be in better shape than ever, right? Wrong.

I do a great deal of daily email – sending, receiving, reading, deleting. I deal with countless people, coordinating news posts, dealing with vendors for reviews, emailing people regarding issues on Thoughts Media Inc. sites – including contests that we run. In the past six months, we’ve run some pretty big contests on the sites. And in the past six months, I’ve had more headaches over email than ever. The basic problem? Person “A” doesn’t get the email that person “B” sent – it’s not in their spam folder, it’s not in their deleted items; the email just never arrived. Person “C” is in the middle (that’s me), able to receive email from both people, but no matter how many emails are sent, no matter what the subject line of email content, person “A” and person “B” just can’t communicate. No error messages are generated, no bounces come back, the email is sent into a black hole never to emerge – somewhere there’s a “helpful” anti-spam server or software program that’s eating the email and leaving no trace. And poor person “A”, the person who won a great prize in a contest, has a hell of a time claiming it because they can’t communicate with the company!

As much as I love the open and free concept that the Internet is based on, email is badly broken. Any idiot can run an SMTP server, there’s no central authorization or control, and thus we have billions upon billions of spam messages sent every year. Email is dying, and no one has the guts to step up and fix it – sure, there have been proposals (Sender ID, etc.) to make things better, but ultimately none of them go anywhere because the repercussions will be so far-reaching. Some of the loudest voices are likely system admins who run their own small SMTP servers and don’t want to have any one company control the flow of email, and they don’t want to have to pay a fee to run an email server. I sympathize, but you know what? Things need to change – how email is sent needs to change.

All of the smart filtering in the world can’t fix the horrible mess that email has become today. The only solution I can see is to only allow authorized, known, registered, and paid for mail servers to send email. Registering your SMTP server should be easy, fast, and not expensive – anyone running an SMTP server should be willing to pay $20 a year (or some other low number) to send email, and it would put an end to the millions of compromised botnet computers out there sending spam without the knowledge of their owners.

Email is dying – who’s going to rescue it?

  • An excellent post. This needs to be fixed, as I am experiencing the same problem at PocketGamer, and quite a lot of my emails over the last twelve months have been just checking that things have been received.

    This is a particular problem when chasing advertisers for payment, because you can’t tell if they received your email or not but don’t want to appear pushy over the matter.

    Your approach is a good solution, but my intention is to switch from using SMTP on our web server to simply passing the responsibility on to Google. You simply alter your DNS settings and Google takes care of everything, so you still have your [email protected] email addresses, but it runs on Google’s servers. I have no aversion to paying for this, and as an added bonus email is backed up; you still have mail if your server goes down, and your email is unlikely to be blacklisted as spam.


  • Hmm. So your theory is that 100% of the email problems you’re having is from your SMTP server being blacklisted? I’ll be interested to hear if that bears out, because I have a feeling many of my problems are related to me using words like “contest” and “winner” in the email, and so much spam uses those terms that they virtually guarantee that your email won’t get there. Please let me know how it works out for you. 🙂

  • Ah, you misunderstand me. Lack of sleep, I’m afraid! I’m working on my final-year university project, and have only slept 6 hours in the last 72. In fact, it’s 3.29am in the UK as I post this… 😉

    I didn’t mean to use the word “blacklisted”. The point I was trying to make was that an email originating from Google’s SMTP servers is likely to be treated more kindly in the future than email from Joe Bloggs’s home-brewed server.

    I’ll let you know how things go – I already use Gmail for my personal email account anyway because the spam filtering is so good, although it doesn’t get a lot of the Russian messages. Incidentally, with the 2600n printer, I tried the XP drivers in frustration. It didn’t work and needed a system restore to fix. What annoys me is that my Granddad’s inkjet printer (bought at the same time as the 2600n) works absolutely fine. Doesn’t even need the driver CD. HP has really dropped the ball on this.

  • ale_ers

    I guess I am one of the contest winners you speak of since we have been corresponding about a vaja case won through zune thoughts. David brings up a good point when he speaks of email being a problem when he is trying to receive payment. He doesn’t want to appear pushy and he doesn’t know if people are avoiding him or is there is a problem.

    I figure something similar happened with my case. Someone leaves the company or changes their email address and emails go unanswered.

    I have since received an email from vaja and they are checking on my case. And sure enough, I found the email in the Junk Folder.

  • Yes, the Vaja contest is one of the contests I was talking about – it turned into a complete and total nightmare, with several people never getting a SINGLE email from the Vaja person, and the Vaja person never able to get a SINGLE email from the person, yet I’m stuck in the middle able to communicate with both people. Totally baffling, and completely frustrating. It happens on Pocket PC Thoughts contests too where we’ll email someone info about their prize, they’ll email us back two weeks later asking why they hadn’t recieved info about their prize…or the developer won’t be able to get in touch with them and they get unhappy with us because they can’t get their prize. It’s honestly almost enough to make me not want to do contests any more. 🙁

  • Only thing I could suggest is to implement something a bit like My Ebay, where both the user and the company use some sort of system based on your own server. Like a souped up PM system.