[ Question ]

Could we solve this email mess if we all moved to paid emails?

by jacobjacob4 min read11th Aug 201950 comments


Mechanism DesignSocial & Cultural Dynamics

Have you ever…

  • Sent an email to someone in rationality and not heard back for many weeks (or more)?
  • Avoided sending an email to someone because you wanted to spare their attention, despite thinking there was a fair chance they’d be genuinely interested?
  • Wanted some way to signal that you actually cared more than usual about this email, but without having to burn social capital (such as by saying “urgent” or “please read”)?
  • Had to ignore an email because, even though it might have been interesting, figuring that out would simply have been too effortful?

I think that 1) problems like these are prevalent, 2) they have pretty bad consequences, and 3) they could be partly solved by using services where you can pay to send someone an email (N.B. payment is conditional on reply).

I’m considering running a coordination campaign to move the community to using paid emails (in addition to their ordinary inbox), but before launching that unilaterally I want more confidence it is a good idea.

It would be very helpful data if people who'd use this is if >=50 other people also did would post just saying "I'd use this is >=50 particular other people did".


Email seems broken. This is not that surprising: your email is basically a to-do list where other people (and companies) can add items for free, without asking; and where you’re the only one who can remove them. We should do something about this.

More broadly, the attention economy seems broken. Recognising this, many rationalists use various software tools to protect themselves from apps that are engineered to be addictive. This helps at an individual level, but it doesn’t help solve the collective action problem of how to allocate our attention as a community. We should do something about this.

Costly signalling and avoiding information asymmetries

An “information asymmetry” is situation where someone has true information which they are unable to communicate. For example, suppose 10 economists are trying to influence government policy on issue X, and one of them actually, really knows what the most effective thing is. Yet, they might not be able to communicate this to the decision-makers, since the remaining 9 have degrees from equally prestigious institutions and arguments that sound equally rigorous to someone without formal training in economics. Information asymmetries are a key mechanism that generate bad equilibria.

When it comes to email, this might look as follows: Lots of people write to senior researchers asking for feedback on papers or ideas, yet they’re mostly crackpots or uninteresting, so most stuff is not worth reading. A promising young researcher without many connections would want their feedback (and the senior researcher would want to give it!), but it simply takes too much effort to figure out that the paper is promising, so it never gets read. In fact, expecting this, the junior researcher might not even send it in the first place

This could be avoided if people who genuinely believed their stuff was important could pay some money as a costly signal of this fact. Actual crackpots could of course also pay up, but 1) they might be less likely to, and 2) the payment would offset some of the cost of the recipient figuring out whether the email is important or not.

How the signalling problem is currently solved, and why that’s bad

Currently, the signalling problem is solved by things like:

  • Spending lots of effort crafting interesting-sounding intros which signal that the thing is worth reading, instead of just getting to the point
  • Burning social capital -- adding tags like “[Urgent]” or “[Important]” to the subject line

This is bad, because:

1) It’s a slippery slope to a really bad equilibrium. I’ve gotten emails with titles like “Jacob, is everything alright between us?” because I didn’t buy a water bottle from some company. This is what we should expect when companies fight for my attention without any way to just directly pay for it. Even within the rationality community, if our only way of allocating importance is by drawing upon very serious vocabulary, we’ll create an incentive for exaggeration, differentially favouring those less scrupulous about this practice, and chip away at our ability to use shared-cues-of-importance when it really matters.

2) The main thing protecting us from this inside a smaller community is that people want to preserve their reputations. But if you’re unsure how important your thing is, and mislabeling it means potentially crying-wolf and risking your reputation, this usually makes it more worth it to just avoid the tag. Which means that we lose out on all those times when your thing actually was important and using the tag would have communicated that.

3) It puts the recipient between a rock and a hard place, and they’re not being compensated for it. If you mark something as “[Urgent]” that actually is urgent, and the person responds and does what you want, you’ve still presented them with the choice between sacrificing some ability to freely prioritise their tasks, and sacrificing some part of the quality of your relationship. There should be some easy way for you to compensate them for that.

4) It’s way too coarse-grained. There’s not really any way of saying:

“This is kinda important, but not that urgent, though it would probably be good if you read it at some point, though that depends on what else is on your plate”

apart from writing exactly that -- but then you’re making a complicated cognitive demand, which has already burnt lots of attention for the recipient.

Brief FAQ

What if replacing email with paid emails puts us in another equilibrium that’s bad for unexpected reasons?

At the moment, it doesn’t seem feasible for us to use this to replace email. There isn’t even software available for doing that completely. Rather, people would consent to receiving paid messages (for example via earn.com, see below) in addition to having their regular inbox.

What if people don’t have enough money?

As mentioned above, sending standard emails are still an option. Yet this becomes a problem in the world where we move to the equilibrium where a standard email is taken to signal “I didn’t pay for this, so it’s not that important”. Then I can imagine grants for “email costs” being a thing, or that the benefits of the new equilibrium outweigh this cost, or that they don’t. I’m uncertain.

Wouldn’t this waste a lot of money?

Not really, assuming that the people who you send money to are at least as effective at spending it as you are, which seems likely if this gets used within the rationality community.

If this is basically right: then what do we do?

Earn.com is a site which offers paid emails. For example, you can pay to message me at earn.com/jacobjacob/ EDIT: note that payment is conditional on actually getting a reply.

If this seems like something that could solve the current email mess, we should coordinate to get a critical mass of the community to sign-up, and make their profile url:s available. (Compare this to how we’ve previously started using things reciprocity.io and Calendly.)

I’d be happy to coordinate such a campaign, but I don’t want to do it until I’m more confident it would be a good thing.

(For the record, I have no relation to earn.com and would not benefit personally by others joining, beyond the obvious positive effects on the community. They simply seem like the best available option for doing this. They have a pretty solid team, and are used by some very senior VCs like Marc Andreessen and Keith Rabois.)


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5 Answers

To the extent that I've experienced these kinds of problems, their core cause has been that I haven't had the time or energy to answer my messages, not that there would have been particularly many of them or because of any information asymmetry. So I wouldn't use this service because I don't recognize the problem that it's describing from my own experience.

I think that proof-of-identity and proof-of-work could solve the stated problems.

If the default is that the sender must complete a computational challenge that is going to kill the incentive to waste time (because the time they're wasting is their own). If you can properly identify senders then you get to decide if and how much computation they have to do to message you. That would also allow for highly granular permissions on individual messages (with a high degree of complexity in rules being possible. It's essentially like a traffic shaping firewall for your inbox).

Another possibility is to allow the sender to indicate importance (or other flags) to the recipient by showing electively larger proof of work. The flag for importance can have an additional price tag or multiplier attached to it in exactly the same way that any other computational rate for a message could be specified.

If that proof-of-work could be made useful, for example with boinc style computations, then nobody has to feel bad about making people jump through hoops or use up electricity.

Email is a time suck because it's easy for the sender. Paying with money is one way of dealing with the problem but that requires financial transfers of some sort. Proof-of-work is not subject to the same rules and requirements that fiat is, and by definition everyone sending email has a cpu to use (neither fiat nor proof-of-work are going to solve individual differences in leverage. Nothing can do that).

Since we're redesigning email, can I ask for file transfer to be dealt with too? Email is the defacto small file transfer method between distinct entities without other established means. This is convenient for the parties involved but all sorts of convoluted and wasteful on the back end. It was never meant to be for file transfer (or html) and one look at how it is done makes the hatchet job to get it to work very apparent. We have more efficient methods of file transfer and bandwidth optimisation these days, so it makes sense to use them.

Sanitising the content of messages would be helpful too. It should be some kind of markdown and not the html free for all it is now. A message should be a single self-contained entity that doesn't communicate with the outside world. It's a letter, not an opportunity to run code.

It feels to me like it will produce weird social dynamics.

If people can freely set their price for receiving messages, setting a high price would be a signal for being high status. That produces weird signaling interactions in a community like ours.

There's plenty of literature on how people value an interaction less if they are payed for the interaction.

I don't feel like getting spam from people in the rationality community is a problem that I'm having and don't feel a need to discourage people from sending me messages.

I agree that email is an attention-sucking mess, but I see the problem differently from jacobjacob. I would happily get all the emails from the rationality community; my problem is that email is dominated by marketing, mailing lists, etc.

I think that using earn.com is likely to exacerbate the problem of unrequested marketing emails. It is free to send messages, and the sender only pays upon receipt of a response. This is like selling advertising on a per-click-though basis rather than on a per-view basis, and if it took off I would expect spam to quickly dominate the platform. Even if the message model were modified to incur costs for sending a message, I still think that many companies would gladly pay to send messages over a trusted high-status channel (similar to how fundraisers include stickers or cash in their mailings to raise the likelihood of you reading the materials). I'm not sure that friends and contacts would value my responses enough to match corporate calculations.

I will happily accept payment for reading and responding to e-mail. I will not pay to send one, and I don't know of any cases where I feel the need to pay for someone's initial reading of an e-mail (I may want to pay for their attention, but that will be a negotiation or fee for a thing, not for a mail).

What _might_ be valuable is a referral service - a way to have someone who (lightly) knows you and who (somewhat) knows the person you want to correspond with, who can vouch for the fact that there's some actual reason not to ignore your mail. No payment in money, some payment (and reinforcement) in reputation.

Basically, e-mail isn't the problem, the variance in quality of things for me to look at is the problem. Curation is the answer, not payment.