As posted on Is there a replacement for email?
Like countless others, I use email daily, but it’s a love/hate relationship because of the dangers of viruses, trojans, phishing, spam etc. I think it is unreasonable to expect the average person to be able to tell a valid email from one that is dangerous.
The latest problem is the incorrect identification of emails as spam. I check my spam folder two or three times a week for emails that my ISP (BT Yahoo) has decided are spam. These could be emails between friends with whom I have been exchanging emails for years. It has caused some real problems, and I am now adopting the bizarre solution of texting the person to alert them I have sent an email.
Email is no longer fit for purpose. Can you suggest something to replace it? David
I don’t think anything is going to replace email in the near future, and probably not in the far future. It’s virtually impossible to use internet technologies without an email address, because they are used as identifiers by most websites, cloud services, and even operating systems such as Google Android and Microsoft Windows. Many companies, schools and colleges also give all their members a unique email address.
Email’s unbeatable advantage is that either everyone has an email address, or can easily get one. There are hundreds of different ways to communicate, including Facebook Messenger, Skype, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Slack and so on, but not even Facebook (1.86 billion monthly active users) has the same reach. Email has an estimated 2.7 billion users with 4.6bn accounts (PDF).
Email’s second huge advantage is that, unlike Facebook, nobody owns it. Anyone can set up an email service and use open standards to interoperate with every other email service, without paying anyone a fee. Anyone can write an email client program, or mail-processing utility, without restriction. There are no gatekeepers. The downside, of course, is that most email is spam.
Email’s third advantage is that it can be used to distribute any type of file, although some email services may impose file size or other limits. (Gmail, for example, now refuses to send .exe files.) You can send documents and photos to your friends, publishers can send you “rich media” newsletters that look like web pages, airlines can send you PDF files of boarding cards, and so on. The downside is that criminals can send you the same things with added malware.
Email’s fourth advantage is that it’s a store and forward system. People don’t have to be online at the same time to exchange emails, and the emails can be kept for future reference. They can also be forwarded to other people, or printed out.
Finally, if you could create an alternative open standard system that could do all the things that email can do, it would probably have the same problems. That’s why I don’t think it will happen.
I check my Gmail spam folder three or four times a day to rescue wrongly identified emails, and it often contains more legitimate emails than spam. I may be an unusual case, because I get a lot of promotional emails, press releases, newsletters and other things that look “spammy”. However, Google has driven a trend to make spam filtering tougher.
No email filtering system is perfect, but it can be either generous or strict. A generous system will let a few borderline spam emails through to your inbox, while a strict system will put a few legitimate emails in the junk folder. Spam filters used to be somewhat generous, so that users didn’t miss some important emails. Gmail took a stricter line. It happily put emails that should obviously be legitimate – website requests for email verification, vouchers and paid-for tickets, regular newsletters, messages from Google itself etc – into the spambox rather than let a few spam emails through.
Swapping false positives for false negatives gave users the impression that Gmail was better at spam filtering, even if their error rates were comparable. This prompted other email providers to toughen their filters (Microsoft’s Outlook.com now does the same thing, but even worse). This didn’t make their filtering better. It just meant you had to look for “false negatives” instead of deleting “false positives”.
Sorry, but thou shalt check thy spam folder or suffer the consequences.
There are two simple rules for handling email attachments. First, don’t open any attachment that doesn’t come from a trusted source, or that you were not expecting. Second, save the attachment and run a virus check before opening it.
Email services try to filter out viruses, and some anti-virus programs can check email for malware. If in doubt, save the file and check it. In Windows, you can right-click the file and select “Scan with Windows Defender … ” or whatever from the drop-down menu. If in even greater doubt, upload the attachment to VirusTotal, which will check it with more than 50 anti-virus products.
VirusTotal can also check suspicious web addresses. If you are not sure about a link in an email, you can test it. Right-click it, choose “Copy link address” and use Ctrl-V to paste it in.
In general, however, try to avoid email attachments. It’s better to upload a file to Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, Google’s Gdrive or a similar service and then email someone the link. This is particularly useful to people who are running out of space in Gmail, because Google has not kept its word about people never having to delete emails, and because Gmail has no way to delete an attachment without deleting the email as well.
Switching away from email
Nothing can replace email, but you can change the way you use it and make yourself less email-dependent.
Email can be annoying or even unbearable when it’s used as a messaging system. You can mitigate that problem by limiting the times you use it. For example, I would only check email three times a day: before starting work, just before lunch, and before going home. Anybody who expected a quick response soon learned they weren’t going to get one. Someone who isn’t using email for work shouldn’t need to check it more than once a day. (Turn off email notifications if you get them.)
When you don’t need to keep email records, you can switch to more immediate and more casual messaging systems. These include SMS texts, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Signal and similar services. Slack and Microsoft Teams are alternatives for business users. The drawback is that not everyone you want to contact will be on the system you want to use.
Facebook Messenger will often be the simplest option because your friends are already using it. WhatsApp and Signal are the most secure options: both use Open Whisper encryption so that a message can only be read on the two end devices, where it’s sent and where it’s received. (Emails travel in plain text across many different servers.)
Facebook Messenger has become popular partly because more people are using smartphones to communicate while they are away from their desks. However, PC users can also send messages from Facebook’s website, or from a number of alternative applications. Facebook has its own web app at Messenger.com, and Messenger for Desktop provides an unofficial wrapper that converts it into an app. Facebook also has a Windows 10 app.
If you can reduce your dependency on email, you should find it less stressful.
Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com