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Stupid Thoughts: Charging for Email

Screen shot 2012-12-22 at 9.35.34 AMWe all have email issues. Few of us get to that holy land of Inbox Zero. We have multiple email accounts — many personal ones, plus our work emails, and don’t forget the email systems inside of social networks, like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr. In 2010, we sent about 294 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) emails per day. About 90 percent of them are of the spammy kind, which led me to this thought this morning, after deleting 15 spam emails from one of my inboxes: how come we don’t get charged to send email?

Earlier this week, Facebook launched a pilot program to do just that. Why did it take so long? We’ve been charging to deliver mail and communications for centuries. You want to send something via pony express? Postal service? UPS? FedEx? Put a stamp on it and send it on the way. You wanted to send a telegram, back when the telegraph was the first iteration of the Internet? You had to pay per word, and it cost considerably more money to send a telegram outside of your city. From Retro-gram.com:

A ten-word telegram sent within a city cost as little as twenty cents in the 1920s. The same telegram sent from Chicago to New York City, for example, cost 60 cents. Most telegraph companies charged by the word, so customers had good reason to be as brief as possible. This gave telegram prose a snappy, brisk style, and the frequent omission of pronouns and articles often became almost poetically ambiguous. Telegrams were almost always brief, pointed, and momentous in a way unmatched by any other form of communication.

Even making phone calls cost money. While we pay a carrier fee, before cell phones, you could pay for a single call by using a pay phone. Or what some New Yorkers call a public toilet. And even thinking about text/SMS features: we still pay per text or in some kind of broader plan.

So if previous communications modes — telegraph, telephone, snail mail — all had some kind of pecuniary system, why didn’t we develop one for email? What made email different? What would the digital landscape look like if we were charged per email sent? For one, we probably wouldn’t be sending out stupid chain letters, nor would companies (and friends!) send us superfluous, spammy email.

I wonder if it’s rooted in how the Internet came to be; that it was developed by the government and academia without a business plan. Other communications modes were developed by non-government folk who were able to capitalize on patents and what not. If anyone has any ideas why we don’t get charged for sending email, leave a response in the comment section.

Image via Shutterstock

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


2 thoughts on “Stupid Thoughts: Charging for Email

  1. Great challenge to email users everywhere. Take your time with emails before you send, saves yourself and others time, and also eliminates the stress of a clogged up inbox. Paying per email may be tough to adopt in changing email culture, however why not start using email in the way it should be? I think a good mix of the “Email Charter” and an improvement to email tools is a great start.

    Posted by Andrea | December 28, 2012, 7:27 am


  1. Pingback: The Year of the Bird | Mailbird - December 30, 2012

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