[extropy-chat] E-mail lists choke on spam (fwd from rah at shipwright.com)

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Sun Apr 18 09:36:31 UTC 2004

----- Forwarded message from "R. A. Hettinga" <rah at shipwright.com> -----

From: "R. A. Hettinga" <rah at shipwright.com>
Date: Sat, 17 Apr 2004 22:41:12 -0400
To: cypherpunks at al-qaeda.net
Subject: E-mail lists choke on spam



 E-mail lists choke on spam

 By  John Borland
 Staff Writer, CNET News.com

 Story last modified April 13, 2004, 1:36 PM PDT

For close to half a decade, entertainment executives and copyright-averse
college students have debated the future of technology side by side on the
"Pho" e-mail list. Now that forum is under siege.

Membership is falling, even though subscription requests are rising. In
large part that's because so many e-mail addresses are choked with spam, or
have fallen incommunicado behind bulk mail filters, and have had to be

Recently, whole companies--including Time Warner and CNET Networks,
publisher of News.com--have periodically started bouncing the list's
messages. That's not only frustrated subscribers who miss out on their
daily dose of digital music dish; network administrators say they sometimes
have to clear their servers of thousands of returned messages a day.


What's new:
 E-mail lists, long one of the most popular and useful online tools, are
increasingly in danger of becoming collateral damage in the Net's war on
unsolicited bulk mail.

Bottom line: Many e-mail groups are responding by changing their format to
Web-based bulletin boards or augmenting their discussions with RSS feeds, a
popular content-distribution format used by bloggers and news sites.


 Pho isn't alone. E-mail lists in general, long one of the most popular and
useful online tools, are increasingly in danger of becoming collateral
damage in the Net's war on unsolicited bulk mail.

"Our cures for some of these diseases are boomeranging and killing us,"
said Jim Griffin, chief executive officer of Cherry Lane Digital and
co-founder of the Pho list. "What we're discussing is the passing of a
medium. It is alarming to me that one of the most basic features of the Net
has been threatened so badly."

 It's far too early to write an obituary for e-mail lists. The 30-year-old
medium has confronted crises before and has been reborn with the help of
clever programmers and new technology. E-mail advocates say this process is
already under way, as companies and list administrators figure out both how
to keep spam under control without so much of an effect on mail lists and
other desired e-mail messages.

"In the early days of the Net, we built a nervous system, but nobody built
an immune system," said Marc Smith, a sociologist who studies communities
such as Usenet and e-mail groups for Microsoft's research division. "What
we're seeing now is the emergence of an immune system."

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Pho and other groups are facing serious
hurdles that could change the way the medium operates forever.

It's almost impossible to estimate how broad the e-mail list community
runs. Experts say there are certainly millions, perhaps tens of million of
lists. They cover every conceivable topic, from the most arcane scientific
topics to the most basely sexual. Some have only a few subscribers, while
others have as many as tens of thousands.

 The growing problems are familiar to anyone with an e-mail box. The
primary culprits are the avalanches of spam cluttering mailboxes with
Viagra advertisements and XXX photos. The energy required to clear through
that digital underbrush alone has taxed many people's patience for e-mail
discussions, experts say.

But the response to the spam assault also has helped undermine mail lists.
Many people move e-mail addresses routinely, creating dead boxes that
bounce messages back to list administrators. Many people use Web-based
mailboxes for e-mail list subscriptions, and these can quickly fill up with
spam or even legitimate messages, again bouncing messages back to their
original servers, filling administrator mailboxes and requiring substantial
time to review and clear.

On the flip side are spam filters such as the popular SpamAssassin, used by
many corporations. These routinely catch messages sent simultaneously to a
large number of people, mistaking list messages for bulk advertisements.
Subscribers have little or no way to tell that their mail is not getting
through, or that, in some cases, they have been unsubscribed completely
from a list.

 Faced with these growing issues, many e-mail groups are changing their
format to Web-based bulletin boards or augmenting their discussions with
RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, a popular content-distribution
format used by bloggers and news sites. Internet pundit Clay Shirky, who
teaches a graduate course in networking at New York University, said he's
close to pulling the plug on his mailing list altogether in favor of RSS.

 "The viability of mail lists is rapidly declining," Shirky said. "Fewer
people are reading in e-mail directly. It's getting clear that the ordinary
Web plus RSS feeds are better."

 Periodic crises
 This isn't the first time e-mail lists have flirted with collapse, however.

The first e-mail was sent by Ray Tomlinson in 1971, a simple test message
to himself. His message evolved almost immediately into broader
discussions, although only a few remained active for long. By the close of
the 1970s, there were 17 public e-mail discussion lists on the ARPAnet, the
precursor to today's Internet. By 1982, there were 44, according to at
least one account. Others were springing up by the dozens on private
academic networks such as PLATO and BITNET.

But as vibrant as these were, their own inefficiencies led to a crisis
almost as dire as today's. At that time, lists were mostly run by hand,
which meant that an actual human being had to respond to subscription
requests and other problems. When these lists proliferated, it often took
weeks for requests to be fulfilled.

Adding to problems were traffic jams caused by the era's still-scarce
bandwidth. Single messages were sent out to hundreds of addresses at a
time, clogging transatlantic lines so badly that e-mails between Europe and
the United States sometimes took a week to be delivered. Some people on the
lists started discussing whether e-mail discussion groups should be banned

The crisis soon passed, however.  In 1986, a BITNET programmer in Paris
named Eric Thomas wrote a tool called Listserv that automated the
administrator's task of managing subscriptions. It also made message
distribution more efficient, virtually eliminating the crippling traffic
jams. The tool was quickly adopted elsewhere, and the number of e-mail
lists on academic networks exploded.

 A half-decade later, an American programmer named Brent Thomas started
looking around for tools to help automate Internet-based mailing lists. He
found Listserv, but decided he could write a new one as quickly as he could
learn the old tool, and in a week created a program called Majordomo and a
scant 3,000 lines of code. Both tools are still widely used today.

 Over the ensuing decade, the shape of mailing lists has remained largely
the same. Web-based services such as E-Groups, which Yahoo later bought and
turned into Yahoo Groups, attracted hundreds of thousands of discussions,
but the fundamental idea hasn't changed much.

 An Internet immune system
 That's why many in the e-mail list community think they'll survive,
despite today's headaches. There is simply nothing that substitutes for the
immediacy and simplicity of e-mail, advocates say.

"I don't really see too many people dropping off lists," said Chapman,
whose Great Circle Associates consulting firm still manages the Majordomo
software. "Mailing lists serve a very valuable purpose. They come to you.
Certain Web sites I do check, but you have to go check."

 Administrators are finding ways around the problems. Spam filters on list
servers, and tools that ensure only list members can send to the list, help
keep unwanted e-mail to a minimum. Automatic unsubscribe tools are helping
reduce the amount of unwanted bounced messages.

 E-mail software itself is getting better at filtering messages into
folders, so that all list messages can be segregated away from spam. Web
mail services such as Yahoo and Hotmail also support this feature.

 Future-looking projects hold out hope of better improvements. Some
programmers are working on pulling RSS and e-mail into the same interfaces,
eliminating what appears to be competition between the mediums today.

 Others are looking at ways to help people wade through the morass of
online discussions more easily. Microsoft's Smith has written about new
interfaces that would help highlight important or heated conversations
among thousands of messages, for example.

These and other innovations, such as better tools to deal with the problems
of spam and spam filters, will help keep e-mail lists and communities
alive, he said.

 "Machines have gotten us into this problem, and they're going to have to
get us out," Smith said.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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Eugen* Leitl <a href="http://leitl.org">leitl</a>
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