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No false-starts, do-overs, or mulligans for Email

Guest post by Neil Schwartzman
Josh Baer, former VP of Datran Media and current CEO of OtherInBox.com has been floating an idea at the DMA’s Email Experience Council and a few other places, and recently got some traction in Ken Magill’s Magill Report.
What Josh is proposing is to create the technical means by which a Sender can decide when email ‘expires’ and is automatically removed from a recipient’s inbox, either by deletion, or perhaps archiving (in the case of Gmail). This would supposedly help the end-user, by removing marketing offers that are no longer available.

Why this Idea Shouldn’t Happen

Email users’ rights trump everything. We get to decide what comes into our inbox, and what doesn’t. Just as fundamentally, we get to decide what is removed from the inbox, too. I no more want a marketer to decide for me to remove email they have sent, than I do deciding to add me to their list without permission.
Adding the ‘expires’ header, and having an email provider complicity remove an email from my inbox borders on 1984-like creepy. I want to know what has been sent to me, and not have Big Brother, or Big Business, remove stuff they decide is no longer relevant. Perhaps my goal in life is to create a complete archive of every Groupon offer ever sent to me – this would put an end to my dreams.
Beyond users’ rights, this scheme will confound receiving systems’ and reputation systems’ ability to determine the complaint rate of a given email campaign, which will be quite dynamic under this plan.
Email providers use complaint rates (and bounces, and myriad other data-points) during a campaign to determine if they should continue accepting email (some campaigns can take hours to complete their run, depending upon the size). If I send 10,000,000 emails over the course of a couple of hours, and set half of them to expire in say, 3 hours, the receiving system sees leading-edge complaints are taken with a number eventually reaching 10MM as the denominator, and so the actual complaint percentage may be kept artificially small, at the end of the day.

Why This Idea (Probably) Won’t Happen

Some folks are dismissing this out-of-hand, saying it would “never” get traction at any of the big receivers, like Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo! But I’m not entirely sold on that argument. It seems to me that when marketing, sales and a receiver come into close contact, it would be natural to treat a source of revenue with kid gloves, and as receiver revenues ebb, there may be a temptation to consider an idea such as this one with more gravitas than it merits. One need only look at Goodmail’s long-term attempts at revenue sharing with Receivers like AOL, Yahoo! And Comcast (apparently the revenue was never more than a trickle, if anything) to realize not everything is always rosy in that regard. Marketers may hold disproportionate sway in an uncertain email provider economy.
That aside, this is asking a lot of the email providers in terms of infrastructure change on behalf of a small slice of the area of their concern. Marketing email accounts for a reported 10% of the legitimate email load (in other words, everything a typical user gets that isn’t spam, rejected at the router, or by other filtering means).
As an official of a very large American ISP said to a group of marketers at a conference some years ago, “On my list of 10 things to do today, you are number 11”.
There would have to be a compelling groundswell of user desire and need for this idea to be considered, and I don’t see that happening, particularly at this point in time. There is a very large technical need to implement domain—based reputation systems looming, and the deployment of DKIM on inbound and outbound email is a pressing concern for both Senders and email providers. Their technical docket is very full, and will be for the foreseeable future as IPv6 deployment, the replacement for depleted IPv4 IP addresses pushes this agenda ever-higher.
Expiring email is a distraction that benefits only a few people in the community, and offers a tempting manner to game reputation systems and complaint rates. And, it ignores the right of end-users to determine what shows up, and stays, in our inboxes.

12 comments

  1. Joshua Baer says

    Hi Neil, thanks for taking the time to speak up about this issue and share your concerns in a constructive manner. I think the more dialog we have the better and it will help to make sure that this can’t be abused.
    However, users will always be able to decide whether or not they want this feature. It should always be something they can opt-in or opt-out of. Over the past few months, I’ve heard from many users who seem to think this would save them time and be desirable. You can see some of the users speaking out in support of it on Twitter at http://twitter.com/xexpires
    This is not about generating revenue for anyone. No money is changing hands and no one is paying the ISPs.
    It’s hard to say what impact this will have on complaint rates. We can all speculate, but no one really knows. I think everyone hopes it will help spam complaints go down. Everyone I’ve talked to seems to agree that less spam complaints is a good thing.
    The way to find out what the impact would be is to have senders start using the header even though the mailbox providers are ignoring it. That doesn’t cause any harm (or benefit) to anyone but it lets us gather data. Then we can check and see of the messages that people complain about, how many of them have already expired. If that number was significant, I think most senders and mailbox providers would see that as a reason to consider implementing it.
    This won’t be useful to spammers. Most mailbox providers that I have spoken to say that they would tie this header to a reputation system, just like they do with List-Unsubscribe. So it probably would just do nothing for them.
    Even if a spammer implements this, all they can do is make their emails disappear. Who have they tricked? I think the trick is on them if they think this will help them send more spam.

  2. David Romerstein says

    Josh says: Everyone I’ve talked to seems to agree that less spam complaints is a good thing.
    No. Leaving aside the fact that it would be fewer spam complaints, that’s looking at the wrong end of the stick. Artificially decreasing the number of spam complaints by removing mail before it can be complained about while continuing to send mail for which no permission has been given is just another way to game the system and allow senders to cash in on very large mailing lists. It’s a way to continue to abuse receivers’ infrastructure while mollifying end users.
    Fewer spam complaints is not the goal. Less spam is.

  3. pgl says

    While I personally wouldn’t use the feature, I have to agree that if it was optional for an MUA to auto-expire an email based on a header, it might be useful to some people. And that’s the real point: would it be useful to the end-user?
    As for whether it gets implemented or not… Probably not. Sort of feels like the “importance” header.

  4. J.D. Falk says

    if it’s entirely optional, why is a new header needed? users could (if the feature existed) set their own expiration dates for no-longer-relevant messages.

  5. Neil Schwartzman says

    “It should always be something they can opt-in or opt-out of.”
    No, Josh, It MUST always be something end users need to opt into. Anything less is a violation of user’s rights to determine what does and doesn’t appear in their inbox.
    Moreover, I have little confidence given the continuous stream of privacy ‘events’ we have seen these past few years, for example Google’s cockup with Buzz or Facebook’s seemingly endless adjustments to their cavalier handling of user’s privacy, that there won’t be a bonehead receiver that will buy into this scheme, much to the delight of ‘over-mailers’. I’ll be there to make much public noise if and when that happens.
    I could not have put it better than Romer when he said “Fewer spam complaints is not the goal. Less spam is.”
    Just so.

  6. Joshua Baer says

    Hi Neil,
    I certainly agree that if you are trying to reduce spam, the best thing you can do is to prevent it from being sent in the first place.
    My goal here is to improve my own personal experience as a user. While I think that “less spam” is a worthy goal, that’s not why I’m promoting this particular standard. It’s not meant to be used by spammers (and I don’t think it will help them send more spam or game the system). It’s meant to be used on legitimate mail that people request and those are all of the use cases that we talk about.
    I know this forum is focused on spam, but that’s not what X-Expires is about. Maybe that makes it irrelevant to you. The people who are supporting this seem to be focused on improving the user experience for solicited email. The hope that it reduces spam complaints is a potential side benefit. That is certainly my interest in it.

  7. Joshua Baer says

    Just to clarify – by “that is certainly my interest in it” at the end of my comment, I meant my interest is in improving my experience as an end user.

  8. Joshua Baer says

    JD – the users I’m talking to don’t want to have to decide on a per-message basis what happens. They seem to be most excited about the idea of this happening automatically without them having to configure it or set up rules.

  9. J.D. Falk says

    I’ll be curious to hear if they still feel that way after experiencing it.

  10. Joshua Baer says

    We’re going to try it out with OtherInbox users and see what they think. Of course we’ll share the results. I don’t claim to have a crystal ball. Maybe you are right and people won’t like it. But the overall response I’ve received so far has been encouraging and makes me think its worth trying.

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