There is a common understanding among Internet users that e-mail is one of the most trusted technologies around. Want to quit your job? E-mail your boss! Declare your flame to your boyfriend? Fire up Pine! Get information on applications for the fall semester at NYU? Hover to Mail.app! After all, it all seems so easy: type a few words, enter a generally easy to understand address and your missive is on its merry way, bouncing from MX record to MX record until it arrives in the hand of its giddy recipient.
This however fails to take into account one of this century’s most painful truths: e-mail, after so many years of being relied on, still doesn’t work reliably — and I’m not talking about SPAM here but rather about the very structure of the network.
An e-mail message, while it travels through the wires is constantly forwarded from server to server, until it reaches you, meaning a misconfigured relay can greatly delay or compromise delivery. Sure, servers are normally configured to queue messages and bounce them back if required but we all know there is large gap between “normal” configurations and de facto ones. Most postmasters have to deal with more messages per second than anyone humanely can keep an eye on. Others aren’t even postmasters at heart and have been politely asked to tinker with Sendmail and BIND if they wanted to keep their job. Finally, as the saying goes, “shit happens”: servers get compromised, links go down…
Sure, technology has an infinite capacity to get back on its feet, as the general reliability of e-mail shows but it still isn’t perfect. What’s more, with no standard way to ensure that a mail has been received (I’m not talking about “read”, here, simply received), we are left “assuming” that a message reaches its recipient. I have been on the web for a long enough time to know e-mails get lost but many people don’t take that into account.
The result? Over the past months, I would have lost a rather large business deal, a couple good friends and brownie points at my bank had I not taken upon myself to mail someone because “I just thought that maybe they had sent me a mail I hadn’t received”. Being constantly on the lookout for mail that doesn’t arrive is tiring but, alas, increasingly necessary.
My e-mail accounts span providers, networks, technologies and countries. In that, I cannot lay the blame on one specific provider when something goes wrong. The more filters, checks and blocks we put on the way of e-mail messages, the more likely we are to disrupt that fundamental technology that has been built for a world where information flowed a lot more freely.
So, if you haven’t heard from me lately, mail me back! ;^)