¶ … Constraints to Email and Potential Solutions
Humankind has been communicating over increasingly lengthy distances over the millennia, beginning with drums and smoke signals, to relay runners and mounted messengers, to the telegraph and telephone and then, during the 1990s, the Internet and email. All of these communication media have their limitations, though, including the most popular written communication method today: email. Indeed, many observers believe that email will eventually spell the end of the United States Postal Service, and trillions of dollars worth of business is transacted using email each year. Nevertheless, like its predecessors mentioned above, it is reasonable to suggest that the time will come -- and it may come sooner than expected -- when email is obsolete, having been replaced by "the next big thing." This paper provides an introduction and overview to social informatics and examines three problems that are currently associated with email that may hasten its demise (i.e., so-called "spam" email, the immediacy of the process that prevents reflection prior to sending messages, and security and privacy considerations), as well as potential solutions to these issues. A summary of the research and important findings concerning current problems with email and potential solutions are presented in the conclusion.
Review and Analysis
Background and Overview of Social Informatics
The past 2 decades have been characterized by an increased focus on the social context in which information technologies are used (Jacko & Sears 2009). According to Jacko and Sears (2009, p. 1184), "The research has appeared under many labels, including social analysis of computing, social impacts of computing, information systems, sociotechnical systems, and behavioral information systems. In more recent years, this overarching enterprise has begun to coalesce within a new field called social informatics." In sum, social informatics concerns the multidisciplinary investigation of information technology design, applications, and implications that takes into consideration human interaction with various cultural and institutional contexts (Jacko & Sears 2009). According to the description provided by Sawyer and Rosenbaum (2008, p. 90), social informatic researchers "focus on the social consequences of the design, implementation, and use of information communication technologies (ICT) over a wide range of social and organizational settings."
Based on its problem-driven approach, social informatics assumes the ICTs and the organizational and social settings in which they are used are a mutually shaped relationship (Sawyer & Rosenbaum 2008). Because it is problem-driven, social informatics "tries to make sense of the vexing issues people face when they work and live with systems in which advanced ICT are one important and increasingly pervasive component" (Sawyer & Rosenbaum 2008, p. 91). One ICT element that is the cause of "the vexing issues people face" is electronic mail, or email, including its use as a direct marketing tool in the form of spam, the immediacy of the process that precludes reflection prior to usage, and significant privacy and security issues which are discussed further below.
Anyone with an email account which is to say virtually everyone who has clicked on their "new mail" button has likely been the recipient of countless unsolicited emails advertising the enlargement or reduction of various body parts, offers to renegotiate their mortgages at more favorable rates, and personal contacts from members of the royal families of different countries with hundreds of millions of dollars to share if the recipient will only provide certain personal and private financial information. These so-called "spam" emails are the source of never ending frustration for email users today and the amounts being sent appear to be growing larger. For example, McCusker (2009, p. 2) reports that, "Unfettered global communication through the internet has facilitated a massive intrusion of unsolicited commercial email messages, commonly known as spam. Currently accounting for as much as 65 per cent of all email, spam leads to productivity costs for businesses each year and is increasingly being used for the commission of crime."
Although spam emails are a relatively recent phenomenon, they are a direct extension of the so-called "junk mail" that has flooded personal and business mailboxes for decades...
The main difference between junk mail and spam, though, is the enormous amount of spam mail that consumers and businesses receive compared to the amount of junk mail that crowds their mailboxes (Blotzer 2008). Moreover, spam email seems to proliferate irrespective of what consumers or businesses attempt to do to stem the flood. In this regard, McCusker (2009, p. 3) points out that, "Spam is email sent to a large number of people who do not request it, detailing products or services in which they may have no interest. It is sent by people who disguise their identity and whom it is difficult, if not impossible, to locate or deter." Virtually all (95%) of spam email contains offers for various products and services (McCusker 2009) and approximately 15% of all email received today is spam (Aquino 2012). While the U.S. continues to churn out more spam email than elsewhere by far, the problem has assumed global proportions in recent years (McCusker 2009).
Part of the problem relates to the volume of spam that is being generated each day. For example, according to Yeargain and Settoon (2007, p. 16), "With the growing use of the Internet for unsolicited commercial electronic mail (spam), many individuals and businesses are complaining about the time and effort necessary to delete such material from personal and business computers. Spam within an organization can cost between $600 and $1,000 per year in lost productivity for every user." This lost productivity is due to email recipients being forced to scan through legitimate emails to distinguish spam emails and deleting the latter from their inboxes (Osborne & Kunz 2007). In this regard, Osborne and Kunz (2007, p. 46) emphasize that, "Spam has penetrated the online environment at rates that may be considered equivalent to an epidemic of catastrophic proportion. Individuals and businesses alike are forced to spend a significant amount of time removing the spam from their daily routines." Indeed, the flood of spam emails has resulted in some practitioners reducing their email usage rates. In this regard, Osborne and Kunz (2007, p. 46) report that, "Because of the increase in the number of spam messages consumers receive, 44% report they have decreased their use of email and the Internet in the last year." Furthermore, spam filters are less than perfect and have been shown to block up to 17% of all legitimate emails (Osborne & Kunz 2007).
Clearly, even small- to medium-sized enterprises can experience significant financial loss due to spam, and the problem is even more severe for larger corporations with thousands of employees. For instance, a study conducted by Nucleus Research included interviews of IT administrators at 76 companies in the United States and found that:
Spam costs companies $874 per employee per year in lost productivity;
Companies lose approximately 1.4% of each employee's productively each year because of spam;
The average employee receives 13.3 spam messages each day; and,
Employees spend, on average, 6.5 minutes a day managing spam (Yeargain and Settoon 2007, p. 17).
Current email volume levels and the cost to all Internet users are set forth in Table 1 below.
Table 1. Volume of email messages and percentage of spam
Daily emails sent
Daily emails sent per email address
Daily emails sent per person
Daily emails sent per corporate user
Daily emails received per person
Email addresses per person
Percentage of email identified as spam
Cost to all Internet Users
The typical content of spam emails is set forth in Table 2 below.
Table 2. Typical content of spam emails
General products and services
Email attacks offering or advertising general goods and services. Examples: Devices, investigation services, clothing, makeup.
Email attacks that contain references or offers related to money or the stock market. In addition, emails that contain other financial "opportunities" such as investments or credit reports.
Email attacks containing or referring to products or services intended for person above the age of 18, often offensive or inappropriate. Examples: pornography, personal ads, relationship advice.
Email attacks recognized as fraudulent, intentionally misguiding, or known to result in fraudulent activity on the part of the sender. Examples: Nigerian investment, pyramid schemes, chain letters.
Email attacks offering or advertising health-related products and services. Examples: Pharmaceuticals, medical treatments, herbal remedies.
Email attacks not pertaining to any other category.
Email attacks specifically offering or advertising Internet- or computer-related goods and services. Examples: Web hosting, Web design, spamware.
Email attacks offering or advertising prizes, awards, or discounted leisure activities. Examples: Vacation offers, online casinos, games.
Email attacks that appear to be from a well-known company, but are not. Also known as "brand spoofing" or "phishing," these messages are often used to trick users into revealing personal information such as email address, financial information and passwords. Examples: Account notification, credit…
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