Revisiting stamps for email Seth’s Blog

I started agitating for it 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. Selfish, short-term-minded senders benefit by emailing as much as possible, and recipients suffer.

This does not happen with traditional mail, because there is a cost to send it.

With the arrival of GPT, expect spam to increase 100x, and be horrendously personalized, invasive, and persistent. It is really hard to believe that an email is not junk, because there will be a lot of junk and it will be harder to filter.

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

Some apps appear to be trying to create a paywall for email. An unknown sender must donate to a charity (recipient specifies amount) to reach your inbox. People have tried this for decades, but it’s hard. There are two problems with this being widely accepted.

The first is that it creates an obligation of attention on the part of the recipient. Selling access to your inbox and then ignoring the email is socially awkward.

The second is that the network effect is not great, and although some people may accept it, email problems do not improve unless they are widespread and permanent.

Here is 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 will have to buy “stamps,” perhaps for a penny each. Money goes into escrow.

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

If enough people mark your emails as spam, you lose your escrow, which goes to a worthy cause. If it’s valid, the escrow stays and you don’t need to buy more stamps.

If a sender doesn’t use the system, they won’t be able to reach anyone who does. So many people don’t have to be early adopters before it’s widespread—if you want to reach the most people (and you don’t know which people have it and which don’t) you need to turn on tagging. It’s a small cost to pay attention in a world that lacks attention.

Normal people don’t have to pay anything, and email will be better for them as senders and receivers. And businesses that should be happy to pay better and better.

If too many senders see penny stamps as an opportunity to spam people (and lose pennies) then increase the price of stamps to nickels, etc. Pretty soon, algorithmic spamming simply isn’t going to pay off.

Allowing anonymous people and companies to steal your attention all day, at scale, seems like a bad idea every day.

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