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E-mail Churn

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Though many people each year change their e-mail address because they switch jobs or Internet service providers, many others, beset by spam, have discontinued their current e-mail addresses in the hope that a new address would be spam free. Though this will work for a short time, it's not the solution to the spam dilemma. This Wired news article points out one of the problems. Namely, most Internet companies -- even many brick-and-mortar companies -- use your e-mail address to identify you in their system and to keep in touch with you.

So, what happens the next time you go to your bank's web site and you can't remember your password? You can't have it e-mailed to you. You have to prove who you are. That's why, when you sign up for an account, many sites ask a personal question such as the name of your first pet. Even so, the company has lost its primary means of cumminicating with you. In the case of a trading company that receives important news about a stock you own, this could be a very, very bad thing.

As the Wired News article notes, in response to a recent survey, 87 percent of the total respondents said they had changed their personal e-mail address in the past year. 35 percent had changed a work address. Speaking as someone who has used the same e-mail address going back to 1996, I find the figures astounding. I've become dependent on e-mail. I don't even have a P.O. Box and no home delivery, so I can't imagine giving up my current e-mail address.

Speaking as someone who designs Web sites, Web designers in general may have to reevaluate using e-mail addresses as the ubiquitous identifier we thought they were. The system has always been a little flawed. After all, imagine someone creates an account on FoodCount.com, a site we designed. They use the e-mail address johnsmith@c4.net but then switch to another ISP. Soon thereafter, another johnsmith@c4.net joins our service. All of the sudden, the sporadic FoodCount.com newsletter sent out via e-mail is spam. After all, the second johnsmith@c4.net didn't request it -- the first did.

How did it get this way? Well, e-mail addresses do uniquely identify a user at any given point in time. They are also verifiable -- just send a message to the address and see if the user gets it. They solve two problems in one by also providing a means of communicating. Additionally, using someone's e-mail address is a good compromise privacy wise: asking for someone's e-mail address is not like asking for their social security number, driver's license number etc. From a usability standpoint, most people can remember their e-mail address better than an account number (I still don't know my checking account number) or a randomly picked user name.

Though the Wired News article talks about the e-mail churn dilemma from the company's perspective, I can't help but think that switching e-mail addresses can also be a nightmare for the user as well. It may alleviate the spam problem for a short time, but you'll have to spend the next few months communicating with the companies you deal with regularly to update their records. In this way, it is no different than switching mailing addresses, but as most people know, that's no fun either.

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