Your Mail May or May Not Have Gotten Through, or, Defensive Communication

Published in Contingency Design on Friday, August 20th, 2004

Spam filters can make e-mail communication unreliable; many people are too busy to attend to all of their e-mail. A problem exists, how can we make it better?

The situation

You blog. People find your blog interesting, you get traffic. You get comment spam, you get e-mail spam. You run spam filters to keep your inbox clean.

You've become popular amongst your peers. They send you e-mail. Maybe they hear back from you, maybe they don't. Your peers are left wondering if you're arrogant, busy, or if it was the fault of a picky spam filter. The difference can be important.

The term 'defensive communication' is used simply to convey that the spirit of this idea is somewhat the same as that behind Defensive Design for the Web.

Examples in the wild

Messages getting caught in spam filters is a situation that has been observed in the wild:

  1. Example. (second paragraph)
  2. Example.
  3. Example.

It sucks for all of us

If it happens that a user sends a note and doesn't hear back, the sender can be left dis-illusioned and the possible recipient can look bad (especially if they break promises such as this one - second paragraph.)

What to do?

From my point of view, this is a case of poor contingency design. I suppose that the situation, with respect to spam filters, evolved slowly and under the radar, but solutions should be put in place.

E-mail form

Using an e-mail form like that in example #3 above is a good way to deal with things. A site owner can then ensure that mail from their form isn't spam trapped.

E-mail process

Another possible solution, not involving forms, would be to use an auto-response when a message is sent with a certain topic, like 'blog-feedback', for example.

Let the sender know that they should send a message with subject="whatever", and that if the message is received, they should receive an auto-reply indicating that all was received well.

Busy-ness vs. A confirming e-mail experience

Using an auto reply for either of the aforementioned methods could be quite useful. For example, an appropriate auto-reply message could be used for when a person is super busy or out of the office (see example below).

It's surprising, really

I'm not picking on anyone special here, and certainly not Matt (linked a few times in this post), who I have been able to reach at unthinkable hours by means other than e-mail. I do find it hard to believe that e-mail communication amongst people who work in the web industry is potentially a somewhat unreliable thing.

If we're going to put our addresses out there, I would hope that we could make communicating with them work. For example, for the real busy amongst us, even a "Sorry, I'm swamped and there's a 99% chance that your e-mail will not be responded to. Please try again in a few weeks" would do. Why? Because that is effective communication.

Comments and Feedback

That is a good subject! Again : )

I haven't had a name for this (Defensive Communication) before, but it was present. And honestly I think in some cases (no case particulary) this is some kind of assurance against some less famous colleague. If one doesn't want to answer for whatsoever reason, this way he can always blame his "damn spam filter".

I really don't think that simple message sent via basic mail form should be stopped by anti spam system. If so, either recepient is having very poorly coded mail form (if there's still someone not knowing how to implement one, I'll make you one for free) or is acctualy arrogant... Providing decent mail form is not rocket science these days and I haven't heard yet that spambots harvested this kind of system.

On the other hand if you're too bussy, get yourself mail assistant or answering machine.

Thanks for the comment marko.

One thing I would like to make clear is that this is in no way directed at anyone in particular.

What I see here is a potential communication breakdown that leaves the user at a loss. If the website developer/owner/author puts their e-mail address out there, they must expect that someone will write them. So they want to hear from people, and if someone writes, that someone wants to be heard.

Lets make sure that it works.

That's all I'm saying..

Auto-responders aren't really a good idea in general. If you automatically send an "I'm busy" message for every email you get, you're just doubling the spam problem by double the mailflow, and surely sending them to the wrong address anyway since spammers invariably forge the From: header. And if that forged From: address isn't valid, expect a bounce message, to which you respond once again that you're busy... You see where this is going

An auto-response triggered by the appearance of a certain phrase is a good idea though. It's almost like a challenge-response, but with the challenge issued before the first mail is ever sent, and no response required. Of course, expecting senders to write in some passphrase like "the crow flies at midnight" might be asking too much, and any sender who doesn't comply is in the same position of feeling ignored.

In response to marko, a mail form hosted on your own site will use your own mail server, which is unlikely to be rejected as spam unless the message is filtered for content. Whitelisting your own domain is a good idea.

You may want to checkout Sentinare spam filtering for email. We recently decided to outsource out mail to them because of their great spam quarantine feature they call PostGuard.

Instead of all spam going into a big bucket, the spam is sorted based on the score, so emails that are least likely spam float to the top and in the rare case you do get a false positive its easy to spot and retrieve. Same goes for the 'ham', the least likely valid emails float to the top so you can easily correct the bayesian filter.

We've been using it at our office for about 9 months and I have gotten 99.93% accuracy with a very low .06% false positive score.

Craig, thanks for the feedback. I commented on your point here (it was easier just to do a new post).

Tina, thanks for the suggestion!

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