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Tell me truly: Have you ever - ahem - had an e-mail "go missing?"

I did once. I was a student who had to hand in an essay and I stayed up very late trying to write it. But come daybreak I was still empty-handed, so I showed up to class, blinked my doe eyes at the professor, and asked if she had received the essay I had e-mailed her.

She shook her head.

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"Oh, dear," I said. "I sent it last night!"

The professor, being an international expert on genocide, was no fool. No doubt she suspected monkey business. But having allowed e-mail submissions in the first place, what was she going to do? It was unverifiable. Who's to say that that e-mail wasn't eaten by some random server thing or router thing en route? There's just no telling.

I never pulled that particular trick again, but I certainly remembered it. The "lost" e-mail, I have long believed, is the great white lie of the 21st century, the worthy successor to "your cheque is in the mail."

In point of fact, the e-mail system was fundamentally reliable, despite the rising tide of spam. Sometimes e-mails would get delayed, sometimes they would bounce back, but very rarely would they vanish without a trace without an able assist from incompetence or willful ignorance. For years, I had a simple answer for anyone who claimed that an e-mail got "lost": I don't believe you.

How things change.

It was just the other week that the spam problem came home to me. I had arrived in Ottawa to do an interview that had been scheduled for weeks. Hours before, an e-mail rolled in from my interviewee, saying he assumed the date was off since I never confirmed with him. My confirmation e-mail turned up later in his spam filter.

Then it happened again. And again. Suddenly, critical e-mails that were supposed to have arranged appointments and confirmed deadlines seem just not to have arrived at their destinations. I sat up very late one night writing an article, sending it off before I tucked in for the night. At noon the next day, it became clear that my editor had not received it.

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"Oh dear," I said. "I sent it last night!"

In the awkward pause that followed, I could only ponder the deadening sense that, in any other situation, I wouldn't have believed me. Somewhere, karma did a little victory dance.

Now that I've seen it for myself, I believe it: Bombarded by every form of abuse, the e-mail infrastructure is starting to show cracks. It's becoming unreliable. Spam accounts for well over 80 per cent of all the e-mail on the Internet, as the arms race between spammers and the anti-spam industry drags ever on.

A fascinating study just released by researchers at the University of California, San Diego and Berkeley, found that out of the almost 350 million spam messages they monitored, only 28 actually led to sales.

Or would have led to sales, that is. The researchers co-opted an existing network of spamming computers, and reprogrammed some of them to send spam messages that wouldn't take people's money or infect their computers. Of those 28 would-be sales, all but one was for "male enhancement" products.

The researchers concluded that while this still brings in enough cash to be profitable, the margins might be thin enough that improved spam-fighting might eventually be able to make their work unprofitable.

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What really boggles my mind, though, is the prospect of losing faith in e-mail. It's the least sexy of all the proliferating ways of getting in touch, but it's also the baseline way of doing business these days. By all means, try to reach me via telephone, cellphone, voice-mail, instant message, text message, Facebook message, Twitter, Skype and Canada Post. I'm capable of neglecting them all with equal finesse. But at the end of the day, the one thing that people are most likely to be checking at all hours is their plain vanilla e-mail.

But e-mail becomes a very different creature when you start to assume that any message that hasn't been confirmed has been lost or stolen, or has strayed. A creeping paranoia sets in. Does receipt of every message need to be confirmed? Do you need to start confirming confirmation messages? More to the point, if someone fails to confirm that they got a message you've sent, is it now incumbent upon you to hound them with follow-up e-mails until they turn around and sputter out something in the affirmative?

The rules of e-mail etiquette are about to get rewritten. Not only will those little grunted out one-liners like "Thanks," "Roger," "Copy that," and "10-4" (which I've never actually received, though I live in hope) become mandatory, badgering for one will be de rigueur.

E-mails using the construction of "I was just checking to make sure you got my note..." will become less hopelessly passive-aggressive, and even take on a fretting, earnest tone. And plausible deniability is back. People who claim to have sent absentee e-mails will be believed, whether or not they deserve it.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More


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