Why Junk and Spam Email Folders Are a Brainwash

Email Spam Junk Folder

Why do we actually need a Junk email folder? Hmmm… Stupid question, right? The Junk folder separates all that annoying spam from the stuff we want to read. It’s the dustbin into which the useless rubbish is dumped. Consequently, the Junk folder is entirely necessary. Or is it?…

Well, this is where philosophy enters the equation. The concept of a bin comes, of course, from the offline world, and is a product of our need to process unavoidable physical waste. We want the apple, but we don’t want the core. What do we do with an apple core in the time between consuming the apple and the arrival of the refuse collectors? We store it in a bin. The same goes for packaging, items we did need but no longer do, and any other physical entity we were forced by circumstance to accept, but now just want rid of. That’s the function of a bin.

With email, however, the situation is rather different. Firstly, within this virtual environment, we don’t, theoretically speaking, have to accept spam email in the first place. With a service set up accordingly, we could, for example, opt into receiving emails from specific people or businesses. We already see this system in action on Twitter, and it’s incredibly simple. By default, if someone wants to send me a Direct Message on Twitter, they need me to authorise that by adding them into my Follow list. If I don’t add them, they can’t message me – unless I message them, in which case they can reply.

If I want or need to receive messages from all and sundry (maybe I’m a business needing to accept communication from random customers), I can change my settings to enable messaging on a universal basis. In so doing, I open the floodgates to spam, but I recognise that consequence.

WHY NOT MAKE EMAIL OPT-IN?

So why don’t email service providers adopt this system? Why not block all unauthorised email addresses by default, and allow individual users to add the people from whom they wish to accept contact? This would not only make the Junk folder redundant – it would massively improve the quality and sensitivity of email communication, virtually eliminate phishing and advance fee scams, etc. Of course, the service provider could still give users the option to accept universal contact, from all email addresses, should they so wish.

We’ll think about the reason(s) why email service providers don’t offer something akin to Twitter’s DM system in a moment. But before that, let’s consider the utter pointlessness of the email Junk folder, even with things as they stand…

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THE VERY POINTLESS JUNK EMAIL FOLDER

Modern email services are capable of working out which emails are obviously spam, which are obviously not spam, and which may or may not be spam. There are additional complications, particularly as regards the latter category, in that two email recipients may interpret the same email differently.

To me, notification of a new gym opening 50 miles from my home would constitute entirely unwanted junk mail. Whereas to someone else, it might be considered useful information. There is, of course, the argument that whether or not it’s going to be of interest, unsolicited marketing is still spam. But fair enough, there’s an area of doubt, in which it’s not really known if an email should be junked.

So the solution is, put the emails that either definitely or probably are spam into the Junk folder, and send the emails that either definitely or probably are not spam, to the main inbox. Because useful emails can wrongly be categorised as spam, the Junk folder exists as a protection feature. Logical, right?

Nope. If we’re going to go looking through the Junk folder to make sure nothing important ended up in there, why bother to separate out the junk in the first place? As regards the Junk folder, we have two options:

  • Look through the Junk folder and fish the good stuff out of the bin.
  • Don’t look through the Junk folder and miss anything that might have gone in there by mistake.

Regardless of which option we take, the Junk folder is pointless. We either have to view its contents, or accept that we’re going to miss some emails we did actually want. Whether or not the folder is there, that remains the case. We can either view ALL our incoming emails, or we can allow the email service to decide what we probably won’t want and throw it away.

True, there will be times when someone calls us, asks if we got their email, discovers that we didn’t, and prompts us to look in the Junk. There may be times when we’re trying to sign up to a website and the “activation email” gets binned. How do we solve that, if there’s no Junk folder?

One of two ways. We either adopt the aforementioned Twitter DM-style system in which we authorise people to email us by adding them to an opt-in list. Or we accept email from literally everyone, and we manually mark the spam as spam, as we recognise it. That adds each sender of unwanted messages to an opt-out list, and we don’t see anything from that particular email address again. We do the latter at the moment, obviously. The Junk folder just persuades us that there’s less need to do it, when really it makes no difference.

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SO WHY IS THE JUNK FOLDER A BRAINWASH?

The Junk folder is a brainwash because it doesn’t in any way help us control spam. It’s there to look like it helps. And on that basis we have to ask why we’ve been given a feature that pretends to be of use? The answer, I would suggest, is that without the charade of the Junk folder, email service users would much more likely demand a real solution to spam. And that would almost inevitably mean email service providers either offering the Twitter-style opt-in system, or looking like they don’t care.

Think I’m wrong? Think the Junk/Spam folder is a valid concept? Well, imagine how stupid a Junk inbox would look on Twitter. Imagine the reaction of the Twittersphere if such a thing were introduced. What would be the point of it? We must either view ALL messages, or accept that a mechanical filter is going to be fallible, and that we may miss messages we wanted. Whatever the inbox routing, that remains the case. Twitter has shown us that with any form of messaging, unless we use an opt-in system, spam is unavoidable.

So why don’t email service providers simply implement opt-in, with the standard opt-out system easily selectable for those who prefer or require it?

DATA-MINING, CORPORATE PRESSURE AND COMPLEXITY

The amount of email traffic we would receive and engage with if we were having to consent to receiving messages from each specific user, would be tiny compared with current traffic levels. It would make most of us much more insular and difficult to profile. Our advertising hotspots would be much harder to for an email service provider to identify. Opt-in would make data-mining a headache for email providers.

There would also be incredible pressure on email providers, from the corporate world, to restore businesses’ means to contact individuals by default. “Email outreach” is a gigantic part of marketing, and cutting out companies’ wherewithal to “reach out” (hate that expression, but it’s what corporates say), would prompt a commercial riot.

And there’d initially be issues with the opt-in process, caused by the complexity of all the different email addresses we might need to whitelist, per person and per business.

The onus of that, however, would be on senders, to be clear in designating one email address and sticking with it. For the recipient, it would ultimately be great news. None of those stupid “No Reply” addresses delivering bad news without any means to respond. Senders would need to dramatically improve their approach to communication. And recipients could easily block badly behaved senders for good. The very threat of blocking would indeed force senders to behave much better from the off.

At no stage, it should be stressed, would any of this be a problem for the recipient. The recipient could, at any time, open their inbox to all senders. With this system, it’s the senders who need to earn the right to be whitelisted, and they do that by behaving themselves.

Microsoft Outlook Javascript Required
Microsoft Outlook doesn’t even allow users to access the service unless they enable Javascript. Why? Javascript is now a HUGE force in tracking and user behaviour monitoring. The scope for profiling us Internet users drives every decision that free service providers make.

SPAM EQUALS DATA

Spam, along with mail that isn’t specifically spam, but which we’d generally never get if we had to authorise contact from each sender, tells email service providers an enormous amount about our preferences. Providers know we check our Junk folders. They know we’re going to fish things out, and they can monitor exactly what. The very concept of us determining: “this is spam”, or “this is not spam”, is a valuable information source for email providers. They could profile us from an opt-in list, but nowhere near as deeply as they can when we’re getting stuff we haven’t really asked for, and constantly making the decision as to whether or not it’s of interest.

The illusion that our email service is managing spam also makes us less responsible with the distribution of our email address. That, once again, assists email services in gathering data on our behaviour.

Email service providers want us to THINK they’re managing our spam for us, whilst in truth, we’re managing it ourselves. Just because we have multiple email folders, doesn’t mean we’re not getting spam. We get spam. We see it. We decide whether to keep or delete it. The Junk folder simply creates an illusion – a charade. We don’t need it, and we’re better off without it – either switching to an opt-in system, or facing the reality that spam is unavoidable with opt-out, and taking privacy more seriously at the outset.

So how come Twitter is happy to operate its DM system on an opt-in basis? Well, Direct Messaging is only one element of communication on Twitter. Spam remains unavoidable in the domain of the standard public tweet, which is still very much an opt-out environment. So Twitter has the best of both worlds. The means to collect info on the way we react to unsolicited marketing, AND an impetus for us to build opt-in lists, which reveal even more about our preferences. But email still has an advantage for the service providers. People regard email as private, and are therefore less careful what they divulge. Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!… They almost certainly know a lot more about our personal affairs than Twitter.

  Author: Bob Leggitt

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