Farhad Manjoo on the Defense of Email

Farhad Manjoo, a departing columnist at Slate, pens a piece praising email. He writes: “Nobody gives email its due. We all kvetch about how much mail we get, how little of it is important, and how difficult it is to sort the good from the bad. Filtering and responding to email is one of the most annoying parts of my job. But I wouldn’t ever give it up.” I’ve read too many pieces espousing how email is terrible and/or evil, so this was a refreshing read.

I think the best point in Manjoo’s piece was about email being democratic and non-discriminating:

One thing people hate about email is that every message shows up in your mailbox pretty much the same way—you see the sender, subject line, and a small preview. Emails from your boss aren’t accorded better placement than messages from an intern or from some schemer in Nigeria. Smart email services like Gmail and Outlook do offer lots of tools for automatically filtering mail, but in general, if you get a lot of messages, your inbox looks like a big mess every morning.

Another way to say this is: Email doesn’t discriminate. Because anyone in the world, even strangers, can email me, and because a message that comes from my boss looks exactly like one that comes from an intern, email is the most egalitarian, accessible communications tool in your office. When every message looks the same, you’re forced to confront lots of viewpoints. Email gives newcomers to an organization just as much of an opportunity to join the conversation as old-timers. I suspect this would be less likely on social networks like Yammer, where richer profile information—follower counts, pictures, and such—clouds out content.

Excellent. I’m going to miss Farhad’s columns at Slate. He is definitely departing in style.

About Those Nigerian Email Scams

If you’re reading this blog, or have used the Internet for some time, no doubt you’re familiar with the Nigerian scams. The big question, though: why are these scam emails written to sound so overwhelmingly unbelievable? Who the hell is going to (and does) fall for them?

Cormac Herley from Microsoft Research has been involved in interesting research: figuring out why scammers often claim they’re from Nigeria [PDF link]. Herley specializes in machine learning, and his finding is that the scammers aren’t interested in seeming believable. They just want to find the most gullible victims they can, to maximize their return on their effort.

[I]f the goal is to maximize response to the email campaign it would seem that mentioning ‘Nigeria’ (a country that to many has become synonymous with scams) is counter-productive. One could hardly choose a worse place to claim to be from if the goal is to lure the unwary into email communication…

“Since gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify. An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the Internet long enough to have seen it several times. It will be figured out by anyone savvy enough to use a search engine and follow up on the auto-complete suggestions [of search engines]. It won’t be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or friends, or who reads any of the advice banks and money transfer agencies make available. Those who remain are the scammers’ ideal targets. They represent a tiny subset of the overall population.

A less outlandish wording that did not mention Nigeria would almost certainly gather more total responses and more viable responses, but would yield lower overall profit. Recall, that viability requires that the scammer actually extract money from the victim: those who are fooled for a while, but then figure it out, or who balk at the last hurdle are precisely the expensive false positives that the scammer must deter…

The hypothesis makes sense: if you can weed out the non-gullible population from the start, the odds of your scamming efforts will surely increase.

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(via Gizmodo)

Links of the Day (02/08/10)

Here’s what I’ve been reading recently:

(1) “Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome” [New York Times] – I am not e-mailing this column, but I am blogging about it. The New York Times conducted a six month study to determine which articles were the most popular ones (as measured by number of times the articles were e-mailed):

To make sense of these trends in “virality,” the Penn researchers tracked more than 7,500 articles published from August 2008 to February 2009. They assessed each article’s popularity after controlling for factors like the time of day it was published online, the section in which it appeared and how much promotion it received on the Web home page.

The results of the study are interesting. Most people preferred to send out emotional articles (in particular, those articles that were positive or happy in nature). I also found it surprising that people preferred to share articles which were longer in length (perhaps because longer articles are better researched or more compelling in general). The New York Times elaborates:

Sharing recipes or financial tips or medical advice makes sense according to classic economic utility theory: I give you something of practical value in the hope that you’ll someday return the favor. There can also be self-interested reasons for sharing surprising articles: I get to show off how well informed I am by sending news that will shock you.

The only thing left to do is for you, Dear Reader, to email that article to your friends (or you can just tell them about this blog).

(2) “The Time It Takes to Win It All” [Wall Street Journal] – The New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV last night. This article explores the amount of work that players and coaches spend working in a typical NFL season. The most eye-opening paragraph:

According to an operational study of National Football League teams prepared for The Wall Street Journal by Boston Consulting Group, the typical NFL season requires 514,000 hours of labor per team. That’s about eight times the effort it took to conceptualize, build and market Apple’s iPod, according to BCG, and enough time to build 25 America’s Cup yachts. If both Super Bowl teams dedicated themselves to construction rather than football, their members could have built the Empire State Building in seven seasons.

It’s a well-researched article and definitely worth reading.

(3) “In Search of the World’s Hardest Language” [The Economist] – this article is from December 2009, but I just read it the other day in my print version of The Economist. I recommend reading the entire piece (did you know that in Turkish you can create a sentence such as “Çekoslovakyalilastiramadiklarimizdanmissiniz?”, which means “Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovakian?”) but if you’re curious, the Economist’s conclusion for the world’s hardest language:

With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance The Economist would go for Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ.