Revisiting stamps for email

I started agitating for this in 1997 and wrote about it in 2006. The problem with the magical medium of email is that it’s an open API. Anyone with a computer can plug into it, without anyone’s consent.

This creates an asymmetric attention problem. The selfish, short-term-thinking sender benefits by emailing as many people as possible, and the recipients suffer.

This doesn’t happen with traditional mail, because there’s a cost to sending it.

With GPT arriving, expect that spam is going to increase 100x, and that it will be eerily personalized, invasive and persistent. That it will be really difficult to believe that an email isn’t junk, because there’s going to be so much junk, and it’s going to be harder to filter.

And yet, email is powerful, and convenient and we’ve been using it for our entire careers. Is it doomed?

Some apps are showing up that are trying to create a paywall for email. An unknown sender has to make a donation to charity (the recipient specifies the amount) to reach your inbox. People have tried this off and on for decades, but it’s hard. There are two problems with this being widely adopted.

The first is that it creates an attention obligation on the part of the recipient. It’s socially awkward to sell access to your inbox and then ignore the email.

The second is that there isn’t much of a network effect, and while a few people might adopt it, the problems with email don’t improve unless it’s widespread and persistent.

Here’s an alternative:

A simple plugin for gmail (and then, eventually other providers) that tags the email you send and receive.

Senders who send more than 50 emails a day need to buy “stamps”, perhaps for a penny each. The money goes into escrow.

Recipients can easily mark an email as unwanted. They can also upvote an email, which will send a signal that allows their peers to be sure they don’t ignore what they just got.

If enough people mark your emails as unwanted, you lose your escrow, it goes to a worthy cause. If it’s legit, the escrow remains and you don’t have to buy more stamps.

If a sender doesn’t use the system, they’re not going to be able to reach any of the people who do. So not many people have to be early adopters before it becomes widespread–if you want to reach most people (and you don’t know which people have it and which don’t) you’re going to need to turn on the tagging. It’s a tiny cost to pay for attention in a world where attention is scarce.

Normal people won’t have to pay anything, and email will get better for them as senders and receivers. And businesses that mean well and do well ought to be happy to pay.

If too many senders view the penny stamp as a chance to spam people (and lose the penny) then just increase the cost of the stamp to a nickel, etc. Pretty soon, algorithmic spamming is simply not going to pay off.

Giving anonymous people and organizations the chance to steal your attention all day, at scale, seems like a worse idea every day.