Changing Email software for minimizing the spread of chain letters

I run a Hebrew website called Irrelevant where I comment on Hebrew chain letters, petitions, money/blood donations requests, complaints on businesses and so on. It's very similar to and it's the only such site in Israel. I run it for over two years. It got rave reviews from all the major newspapers in Israel and several times I refused requests to appear on national TV and talk about it.

Why do I run this site? Because I want to protect the innocents. People who forward chain letters without checking them first with some external resources are bound to be considered by some people as naïve or stupid. I want to help them to easily find a comment on letters they receive or help the recipients point them towards such a resource without just writing back "you are dumb".

Does my site help the situation? I think it doesn't. For example, the oldest item in my site (October 30th, 2002) is an urgent blood donation request for a very sick child. It turned out to be that the original letter was about a man, who died a few weeks after the letter was sent to a close circle of people who knew this man. Since then, several people have forwarded the letter with their email signature on it, giving the letter authority it didn't deserve. The last person to forward the letter was the spokeswoman of a hospital, which gave the letter a boost. And it still runs.

So what do I suggest? Reading Clay Shirkey's "Group as User: Flaming and the design of Social Software" and Amir Dotans' "The Socio-Usability Dilemma" I decided to think of how email software (servers or clients) can be changed in order to minimize the spread of chain letters. I know that some suggestions are not that good, some missing, some overlapping, and some cannot be easily implemented, but it's a start, so let's go!

Email software doesn't read email: I think the problem of email today is that email software is not programmed to read email. It can be told to scan the headers and text for keywords, it can group messages according to rules, but it cannot do anything according to the content of the email without first being told what to look for. If email software could group email according to its' content, or suggest information from past emails (or external information) when we write email, it will relieve us from the burden of remembering stuff and tell us new things we didn't know. Like that the petition we are signing is closed for two years now, or that we already had this discussion with other people in the past.

Validating the content with outside resources: Email clients should have a button saying "tell me more about the content of this email" which will bring some information from the web generated from keywords found in the email. With chain letters it's very easy because they are forwarded as is and their text can be found in websites specializing in chain letters and hoaxes. A warning can pop up if chain letters phrases will be found in the text.

Automatic long term email memory: Now, users have to manage an email archive for them to be able to get to past email. Email clients should automatically manage the archives. There should be a button saying something like "tell me about past conversations I had about this subject". With an automatic archive and a "conversations" button, people will not have to get emails beginning with "how many times do I have to tell you thatů"

Not allowing forwarding to many addressees: Email software (clients and/or servers) should warn the senders when they are sending something to Everybody. Usually, this is not a good thing, either because of the content of the email or because of organizational rules.

Cutting the forward tail: Email software (clients and/or servers) should know which part of the email is content and which part are the addresses of past addressees. There is no need for the forward trail to be copied all the time, a tail which harms the privacy of others and which is a good source of information for spammers.

Real image resizing in Word and PowerPoint: This is not absolutely related here but bugs me a lot. When resizing an image in MS documents, the image weight stays the same, so documents with images fill up too much email storage. When saving Word documents and PowerPoint presentations, users should be asked something like "do you want to make this document easier to be sent by email without harming the quality of the pictures?" and a real pixel resize will take place as a part of the process of saving the documents.

I have opened a QuickTopic for this page and I welcome ny feedback you have on it.

Amir Dotan writes:

The socio-usability dilemma occurs when usability considerations, which are meant to offer a more pleasant user experience from a user's perspective (save constant visits to check for a reply for example), collide with socially oriented goals such as cooperation.

The question to ask is what sort of approach developers should adopt in order to reduce the problem. The presence of the socio-usability dilemma has a clear and direct barring on the overall social quality of the finished product.

Attempting to accommodate both the user and the group and adhering to their needs and goals can be perceived as a tug of war. Each actor (user and group) has his own set of interests and is motivated to see them being addressed successfully. It is up to the developer to resolve his own professional dilemma and by doing so help alleviate the social dilemma within the group in the future.
The Socio-Usability Dilemma - Sociability versus usability in social software design (PDF) Amir Dotan, 2003, Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelors in Multimedia Arts. SAE Institute, Middlesex University.

Teach a man to use the internet and he will leave you alone.