Living through digital history

I graduated from high school in 1991* in the BBS era. The Internet didn’t open up to commercial use until 1992, and didn’t really take off until 1994 when Mosaic was released.

Before email on the internet became a thing, most people used email from one of the Online Providers (mainly Compuserve, AOL, and Prodigy). Email was like an internal direct message on these systems. I don’t remember what year it was, but eventually, gateway services between the Online Providers were established so a Prodigy user could email someone at AOL, etc. Hotmail was the first real internet email that I remember (named because it was HTML-mail), and Microsoft didn’t buy that until 1997, well after I had graduated from college and was already living in Boston at my first job at MIT.

When Mosaic came out, companies started moving away from internal pages at AOL, etc., and started creating their first websites on the Internet. I assume that was a huge loss of revenue for those Online Services and contributed to their downfall. Eventually, the email standards (X400? X something…) improved to where they all upgraded and we had true interoperability, though I don’t recall what year that was, I think it was 1995 (after Mosaic).

When you watch an episode of Friends – keep in mind that historically all of this was happening in the background. Email just wasn’t a thing in the 90s that people used routinely to keep in touch. Arguably we don’t use it today for that either, since social media has supplanted it**.

The bottom line is that I was in college from 1991 to 1995 at the precise moment in time when we went from BBSes and Online Services ruling the world to the dawn of the true Internet era. I don’t think many of my age-peers remember that this history overlapped with ours in this way.

The Wikipedia entry for Online Service Provider is well worth a read, especially if you are in my age cohort. Gen-X FTFW!

*The senior class of 1990 made fun of my HS class by changing our slogan to “We’re the class of 91. We drink no beer and have no fun.” I remember this slogan better than our actual slogan, maybe because it was rather accurate in my case at the time. (actually, our unofficial slogan for ourselves was “from this prison, we will run, we’re the class of ’91” which resonated more with geeky young me). During high school, for me ’87 to ’91, I spent a lot of time dialing in at 14.4K to BBSes.

**much like social media has supplanted blogs, whose history overlaps my grad school years in exactly the same way that the history of email and the web overlaps my college years. I’m old-fashioned enough to have posted this to my blog here. But I’m modern enough to know that all my friends are here on FB and don’t read my blog, which is why I also cross-posted it to Facebook.

Google+ is closed, Facebook and Twitter are open

There’s a simple reason that Google+ can not be a facebook killer – it adds to social noise and creates a walled garden where data can not be exported from nor imported to. There are no RSS feeds generated by Google+ that you can pipe into Twitter using Twitterfeed, nor can you import tweets to Google+ the way you can with Facebook. There is no Google+ API like the Facebook API that allows data import to the service from other services.

This is a huge, critical flaw in Google+ that guarantees it won’t be a Facebook killer.

A better use of Google+ would be to unify Gmail and Circles such that you can create whitelists for email with a single click. There’s no email service at present that permits a user to create a whitelist easily – you have to tediously set up manual filters instead, and even then there’s simply no way to say “send all emails (except some) to Trash”. A simple whitelist functionality is the real way to declare email independence. I fully support what MG Siegler is trying to achieve here but until we can say “receive mail ONLY from X, Y, Z” we will never be free of the tyranny of the inbox.

Maybe Google+ is the first step. But we need to stop treating it like Facebook and start thinking about how it can be used to improve the original social network – email. If Circles can be used to define whitelists, that’s real value.

Related: a little slideshare I put together a few years back about managing social noise. Still relevant, if a little outdated.

First gmail, now Yahoo mail is down

good grief, it looks like it’s Yahoo Mail’s turn to go down in flames:

Yahoo Mail error message
Yahoo Mail error message

I’m sure they will have service restored soon. But it’s particularly more galling given that 1. I snarkily defended Yahoo Mail during the gmail outage (oh, karma!) and 2. unlike gmail, I’m a paying customer for Yahoo’s Plus service (no ads, more storage, extra features including mail aliases).

This, in a nutshell, is why the Cloud sucks. But even these hassles aren’t enough to make me want to go back to the Eudora days where I had to manage my own mail archives locally. Email is inherently a pain no matter how you do it – the only real way to be free of it is to declare Email Independence.

and boy, are my arms tired!

was out of town this weekend. My inbox is a nightmare – over 500 messages not including spam. I am seriously considering nuking it. Step 1 towards email independence is simply knowing when to cut your losses. If you sent me an email, please comment below so i know what to prioritize.

not to be outdone, 1,000+ unread items in google reader? Not for long.

declaration of email independence

Michael Arrington laments the state of his inbox, and calls for someone to solve the problem of email gone wild. The problem with email is that it doesn’t scale. The solution of creating complex rules, filters, and forwards only serves to move email around but doesn’t solve the problem that it will always take a finite amount of time to process a piece of email, even just to click delete. Ultimately, what is needed is to reduce the volume of mail, not attempt to sort it.

There is a solution, but it isn’t for the faint of heart. The answer to email tyranny is email independence. Consider the types of email we get:

– personal email from friends and family
– email related to work
– email from strangers
– spam

The key is to eliminate mail from each category. Ultimately, you want to receive less mail overall, so that the “signal to noise ratio” of your inbox is improved. Let’s consider each of these in reverse order.

Spam is actually the easiest to handle, as built-in mail filters do a decent job. However, a great technique to improve the performance even further is to forward your mail from one account to another. For example, you might have a public yahoo email address, which forwards to your private gmail account. Email must survive the spam checks on both accounts in order to reach you.

Email from strangers is usually a matter of convenience – for the stranger. Do you really need a public email so that people can contact you? The easiest way to cull mail from those people you do not know (outside of a work context, of course) is to employ a whitelist, a list of contacts who alone are permitted to email you. Email from anyone not on the whitelist gets an auto-response indicating that you don’t know who they are and if they really need to contact you, they can do so via an alternate method, such as a voicemail box (preferably one custom reserved for this purpose). Whitelists are not a standard feature of most free webmail services but there are various ways to achieve it, Google is the best resource.

Email related to work is simple in theory – just use your work email, and do not use that email for anything other than work. Arrange things so that your work email is inaccessible outside of work. Or at worst, read only. Time spent clearing the work inbox is time spent doing work by definition, assuming you’ve strictly limited your use of that acct to work matters alone.

The other strategy for work email avoidance is to heavily embrace other intra-office communication methods. Embrace tools like LinkedIn, become an Outlook Calendar power user, or Notes depending on your environment. Think about setting up a wiki for intraoffice documentation rather than the endless parade of word documents. And of course, use the phone for quick questions or other instant communication needs. The typical office is brimming with technologies and software that can be used to circumvent email for routine communication.

Finally, the hardest nut to crack – your friends and family. For the most part, the best solution here is to realize that because these people are already in your life, they probably will never rely on email for something truly important. Thus, you can safely let most of this email go into your Family folder unread. If something important comes up you can always use the search function of your email service/client to retrieve it. But on the whole, train your friends and family to realize that you rarely read their emails, by simply repeating the phrase, “oh, I must have missed that email…” a lot. They will adapt accordingly.

Analogously to the office scenario, though, you do want to retain the ability to engage in routine communication with your friends and family. Using tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, and heavily adopting RSS and proselytizing it heavily, will emable you to do most of that social communication through a feedreader and web browser rather than a cluttered inbox. The Facebook news feed is orders of magnitude more efficient than email in keeping up to date on birthdays, events, and other miscellany. Likewise with “subscribing” to your friends and family on Flickr or delicious instead of emailing links and photos back and forth. Its possible to offload most of this content onto the social network scene.

There are probably a lot of other ways to transition away from email. But all of this requires a serious commitment. After all, email will always enjoy an ease of use advantage over the various services and whatnot you might employ as surrogates. With discipline though, it can be done. I am not there myself yet, but ot’s something to work towards 🙂

email the google-killer?

Fascinating numbers via Bernard Lunn at RWW about the true market share threat to Google of a Microsoft-Yahoo merger:

Email is 49% of Impressions. Portals and Search Engines is 10% by contrast. This is some free data from Nielsen-Netratings. click on Top Site Genres.

56% is Microsoft and Yahoo combined market share of webmail. Gmail is down at 7%. This data is via Fred Wilson’s back of envelope calculations.

And as far as email goes, Lunn notes that Hotmail is a dying joke and that Yahoo’s email product is superior:

Hotmail has lagged terribly. Most people who used it would not return, I cannot imagine who would switch (an AOL user maybe) and most people already have email. So it is a lost cause. One major reason it lagged IMHO was Microsoft fear of cannibalizing Outlook. So they won’t offer the features that users want that both Google and Yahoo have been rushing to fill. Yahoo is reputed to have the most “Outlook-like” interface and that matters massively to people making the switch.

Microsoft will probably do the smart thing and let the Yahoo team run with email. Hotmail will die as a separate brand, eventually.

It should also be noted that Yahoo acquired Oddpost in 2004, which is now the foundation of their webmail platform (and note, Yahoo mail didn’t spend long in beta, unlike Gmail which embarrassingly remains in beta mode even after the official launch in 2005.

Yahoo’s email is superior to Gmail in almost every respect except for chat integration and email conversation grouping. Yahoo’s feature set includes disposable email addresses, drag and drop, and tabbed viewing. As Lunn notes, the potential for monetization is there, both in displaying standard contextual ads as well as the option to pay Yahoo $20/year for increased storage and ad-free viewing. But what about email search?

Yahoo’s email search is truly innovative. When you type a search term, a separate pane open up and gives you additional search refinement options. Click on the thumbnail below to see how it works:

yahoo mail

Here’s a closeup of that search pane:

yahoo mail search

It’s amazing how functional and useful this is after a while. It’s also easy to see how this could be a vector for additional monetization. It’s not hard to see how Yahoo could place ads below the preview pane and search-specific ad results in the search refinement pane, even for paying customers like me (free Yahoo mail puts ads at the top of the page, and inserts text on outgoing mail in the footer but obviously this hasn’t impacted their market share.)

And as for integrated chat, since MS messenger and Yahoo Messenger already talk to each other, we can expect that the mail client won’t be static on that front either.

So, 49% and 56% indeed. It’s not hard to see why Microsoft is going after Yahoo, or why Google is afraid.