E-mail Openness vs. Spamity Spam

Werbach argues in Slate that spam has “doomed” email as we know it:
Or at least it’s about to destroy the e-mail we’re used to: the tool that lets a stranger respond to something you posted on your Web site or that lets a potential client contact you after reading an article you wrote. E-mail is pervasive because it’s simple to use, remarkably flexible, and it reaches everyone. The trouble is that e-mail is too good at that third task. Because e-mail inboxes are open to anyone, longtime Internet users now receive hundreds of spams per day, making e-mail virtually unusable without countermeasures.
This is a problem dear to my heart, and Werbach illuminates the crux of it well. Tools exist to ensure that you are never bothered by spam — but only if you are prepared to abandon filters and opt instead for a “white list” system that requires you identify allowed senders in advance.
For some people, this works just fine; they don’t want anybody they don’t already know sending them email. But for others — those with, say, weblogs — it doesn’t work at all. An email address that requires prior permission to use is useless if what you want is feedback from an unknown reader.
But Werbach overreaches, I think, when he argues that the consequence of this dilemma will inevitably be an abandonment of ‘open’ e-mail. (“E-mail’s openness is doomed when faced with massive traffic and a few bad actors.”)
First, it is important to recognize that openness is not an attribute that all e-mail users require — and in fact, I’d argue that the vast majority care little about. While I can’t offer any hard evidence, my suspicion is that most e-mail addresses are used by people who only use them for communications with specific friends or business associates. They don’t have a need to place their address in a publicly available forum; the only people they need to communicate with can simply ask for it. For these users, then, a white-list solution for spam works just fine; the required sacrifice of openness is not truly a sacrifice at all to them.
An analysis of the future evolution of openness, therefore, should focus on those users who do require it, not the e-mail using population as a whole. And here I suggest that there is an advantage that Werbach overlooks: that the community of users who require openness in e-mail is, almost by definition, a community of individuals who are either technically savvy or have the resources to pay somebody else to be savvy for them.
And this is a key advantage in the fight against the spammers, because solutions do exist to allow the public display of an e-mail address in a form that cannot be read by spam-collecting robots. Dean Peters’ eMail Obfucscator is one example: it applies a simple technique to pack an e-mail address with extraneous characters that confuse a spambot — but are ignored by a browser. The e-mail link displays properly to a user, and can be clicked to automatically send mail as always, but spambots end up with garbage when they try to scan it.
Now, such a solution isn’t foolproof; surely someone will come up with a spambot that can get around Dean’s clever tool eventually (if they haven’t already). But the real battleground is a very narrow one: the question is whether technical solutions can be found to allow a user to click a link to e-mail, while still preventing automatic harvesting by spambots. That’s all. Because we know for certain that, in the worst case, an e-mail address displayed as, for example, a JPG image rather than text, will never be machine readable. (Well, perhaps not never, but no-time soon at a reasonable cost). And the only loss would be the requirement for a user to type in the address themselves (a variant of this approach, listing your address as “somebody – at – something – dot – com” is already in widespread use).
So: solutions exist to minimize the risk of publicly displaying your e-mail address, and it turns out that the community of users who need such solutions are also the very people who have the technical knowledge and/or resources to use them.
As a practical validation of the argument that openness will survive, take the weblog community itself. I performed a quick, admittedly pseudo-scientific survey of the top 25 personal weblogs (blogs that appear to be written by a single individual) on the Myelin Ecosystem. Of those, 21 had e-mail addresses listed. Two — John Robb and Jon Udell — utilize a HTML form to allow users to send feedback, leaving only two others — Adam Curry and Ev Williams — who don’t appear to provide any feedback mechanism or e-mail address.
So, in our community, even for the most heavily-trafficked sites, 84% of users still think e-mail openness is worth the risk of spam — or have found ways to deal with it.
And this should come as no surprise. Because the final, most damning argument against the prophecy of doom for open e-mail is the simplest: open e-mail will continue to exist because there’s just no real alternative. Web publishers and others have a burning need to allow people to contact them — and that means that one way or another, they’ll make their e-mail address available to those who want to find it.
Even if it does mean getting a few messages from relatives of dead Nigerian ministers now and then.