Tag Archives: Mail

The rise and fall of the Internet cliche

I thought I would try out Edward Tufte’s sparklines idea as a way of presenting some research I have been doing into how the mainstream media has been covering technology over the last decade or two. I went through Factiva (part-owned by Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, and my paymaster), noting down the number of references each term got in a year (not as swift an exercise as one might hope. There must be an easier way of doing this.) Some of the results are in a column due out tomorrow in the Asian and online WSJs (Friday).

Anyway, here’s some material there wasn’t room for, along with a stab at a sparkline or two:

Who calls the Internet ‘the information superhighway’ anymore? Sadly, some still do – mentions have been static the past four years at about 1,000 per annum – but that’s a distinct improvement over 1994, when it was cited on Factiva a record 16,447 times. Since then editors must have started issuing edicts, because usage more or less halved in subsequent years. ‘Electronic mail’ started getting mentions as early as 1972 but took a quarter century to fall out of editors’ favor for the snappier sounding ‘e-mail’. From a high of 13,637 mentions in 1996 it has been falling steadily: Last year it was mentioned only 4,552 times against 1,577,582 for e-mail. Some terms, unfortunately, are more resilient. ‘Cyberspace’, for example, took longer than ‘information superhighway’ to hit the mainstream (in 1994 it received a third the number of mentions) but continued to enjoy journalistic approval right up to 2000, when a staggering 26,226 editors failed to spot its cringe-making quality and allowed it to enter copy. Since then, it’s gradually fallen from grace, but not fast or far enough: Last year it popped up nearly 9,000 times. Ugh.

Then here’s the same data in sparklines format (thanks to Mathew Lodge’s excellent Adobe Photoshop script for making it possible for a design doofus for me to be able to get something like this out. My fault it’s not a very good example of the genre. Suggestions very welcome for making better ones). Still, I think it shows up some interesting features of how, at least in the case of the first two, one cliche has given way to another over the past decade.

Mentions in Factiva, 1986–2004:

Sparkline for SuperhighwayInformation Superhighway
Sparkline for Cyberspace3Cyberspace 
Sparkline for Electronic mailElectronic Mail

What the data doesn’t show is that this was the first reference to ‘electronic mail’, back in January 1972:

Pres Nixon proposes development and demonstration of electronic mail system…
21 January 1972, New York Times Abstracts – Pres Nixon proposes development and demonstration of electronic mail system to provide routine overnight mail delivery between stations and 1-hr priority delivery

Whatever happened to that?

Yahoo Grabs Oddpost

I hate people who quote themselves, but here goes: A few months back I wrote in my column about how “eventually, RSS will replace e-mail. Or rather, it will dovetail with e-mail so that it appears in the same place, in the same program, so you can read Aunt Edna’s newsletter as well as the news feed of your favourite football team.” I also mentioned a great little program/service called Oddpost, which I said came closest to this ideal: “One great example of this is Oddpost, a subscription e-mail service that folds nearly all of what I’ve just outlined into one place, from RSS feeds to your Web mail accounts.”

Well, for once it seems I may have not been too far off the mark. Last week Yahoo! bought Oddpost for an undisclosed sum. The folks at Oddpost write that “from this day forward, we’ll be working on a new, advanced Yahoo! Mail product (one that, in press release terms, might be described as “a powerful combination of our award-winning web application technology with the world’s #1 Internet brand and email service”)”.

Unfortunately new users won’t be able to sign up for Oddpost in the meantime, but this represents a significant move for the whole merger of Blogs/email/RSS. In part, of course, it’s Yahoo playing desperate catch-up with Google over Gmail and search. But it may end up as more than that. As Iam Bumpa puts it: “This is about RIAs (rich internet apps), integrated web services and open standards being fused with productivity software, micro-content and social networking and offered as hosted experiences.” In short, putting lots of different bits and pieces in one place that you can really control, and access from anywhere. Think of it as MyYahoo! but one that doesn’t look like something out of the mid 1990s.

News: Microsoft Takes Aim At Junk, Document Search

 Microsoft’s Bill Gates has announced new junk e-mail filtering technology called SmartScreen. AP reports the technology will use algorithms to judge whether incoming e-mail messages qualify as junk e-mail and filter them out before they get to the end user’s e-mailbox.
 
More interesting, Gates demonstrated Microsoft Research’s Stuff I’ve Seen project, which is developing a tool for rapidly finding material that users have seen ? whether it was an e-mail, Web site or document. The tool is not to be incorporated in any products anytime soon, but shows people some of where Microsoft’s billions of dollars in research is going.

Mail: Apple Chomps Spam

 This from reader Rulf Neigenfind about Windows, Macs and Spam: “You have certainly heard about the built-in mail client in Mac OS X that
comes with an AI equipped spam filter. This filter uses “adaptive latent semantic analysis” to identify junk mail and works amazingly well. Once more I can only state how lucky I am that I’m not forced to bear with Windows.”
 
Thanks Rulf. I’ve tried the filter and while it’s very good, I don’t see it as vastly better than the Bayesian Filters available for Windows-based email. What’s good, I guess, is that it comes preloaded, and it’s very easy to use.

Loose Wire — Are You Being Read Or Completely Ignored?

Ever found yourself wondering if the e-mail you sent your boss/aunt/long-lost friend was actually read? Here’s some new software to help you keep tabs

By Jeremy Wagstaff, 22 May 2003

This column first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review
(Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., used with permission)

If you have any obsessive/compulsive tendencies, you probably should stop reading now. If you don’t, I have a solution to questions you’re bound to have asked yourself at one point or another, such as “Has the boss read my e-mail asking for a raise yet?” or “How can I check that everyone got the invite to my Tupperware party?” and “Why hasn’t Auntie Mabel thanked me for my thoughtful, but somewhat cheap, birthday e-greeting?”. The answer: MSGTAG.

No, it’s not compulsory labelling for monosodium glutamate, that charming flavour enhancer. MSGTAG is short for MessageTag, and it’s a way to see whether or not e-mails have been read by the recipient. Right now, if you send an e-mail you have little or no way of checking whether someone received it, let alone actually read it. Some programs allow you to request an automatic acknowledgement that an e-mail’s been received — or even opened — but the option depends a lot on what software the recipient is using, and the settings. Most of the time you’re firing blind when you send an e-mail.

Enter MessageTag, from New Zealand software-development company eCOSM Ltd. Install the MSGTAG software and, in most cases, it will automatically reconfigure your e-mail software to add a glob of code to the bottom of any e-mail you send (to those of you in the know, it’s an HTML image reference) which assigns the e-mail a unique ID number. When the recipient opens their e-mail, the glob of code sends a message back to the MSGTAG server, or computer. That computer makes a note of the ID, and the time the message was received. It then matches the ID with the MSGTAG user, and the matching e-mail, and notifies the user the e-mail has been opened, and when. Voila.

I found it worked like a charm. The free version does the final step — sending a notification that an e-mail has been opened — by e-mail, whereas the fully functioning version, called MSGTAG Status, runs a separate program that lists all the e-mails you’ve sent, and then flags those that have been opened.

To me it’s a very useful tool. Having to alert friends that a party had been cancelled at the last minute, I was able to monitor who had opened their e-mails and who hadn’t. Sending e-mail to PR folk suddenly gets a lot easier since I can tell who has opened it and who is ignoring me, and who has either moved, died, or hasn’t yet figured how to use the e-mail program.

The basic idea is not new. Several other companies offer similar products: the most promising, HaveTheyReadItYet (www.havetheyreadityet.com), only works with Outlook and Outlook Express for now, though other versions are planned. The free version allows users to monitor the progress of five e-mails at a time; more than that and you have to buy digital stamps at $5 each. Another option is SentThere , which allows you either to send and monitor e-mails in the same way as MSGTAG, or to use a special mini-e-mail program. I couldn’t get this one to work. Other products, such as South Korea-based Postel and OpenTrace didn’t respond to e-mail queries, an irony not lost on me.

Still, after using MSGTAG for a week, I was hooked. Which is where the obsessive/compulsive bit comes in. I found myself eagerly monitoring my “Status” window to see whether my e-mail had been read, and then found myself wondering why the person hadn’t replied immediately. One guy, a friend I hadn’t heard from for nearly a decade, opened my mail but still, nearly a week on, hasn’t written back. He is definitely not coming to my wedding, if I have one. I can see all sorts of new neuroses coming out of all this.

That’s not the only danger. Privacy advocates claim it’s an invasion of privacy to covertly monitor when an e-mail is read. Beyond that, the argument goes, users could also find out other information about, for example, whether and to whom the e-mail may be forwarded and how long they spent reading the e-mail (“What? They only spent 10 seconds reading my account of my summer trip to Graceland?”).

I don’t really see this is a privacy issue. Send a text message from many hand-phones and you can obtain a message informing you of its delivery — which only works when the phone is switched on and in the coverage area. Likewise, sending registered mail, or packages, enables the sender to obtain similar information. Users may take some getting used to this, but I think it can only enhance the usefulness of e-mail to have some way of checking whether it actually ended up where it was supposed to.

That said, I do have some gripes: At $60 the Status program is a bit steep. And it will only work if you are using HTML e-mail — the fancy version where you can change font styles, insert pictures and view Web-page-style newsletters. And MSGTAG won’t, for now, work on Microsoft Exchange servers, undermining its effectiveness for corporate users. Having said all that, I found most MSGTAG e-mails worked, and now I’m not sure what I’ll do without it. Of course, I’m now losing sleep sitting in front of the PC monitoring whether my e-mails are getting read. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.

June 26 2003: MSGTAG is no longer available in a free version. Read on here.