COMsumers | Digital Post | Spam | Strategic Foresight

Unbound Spiral: Rethinking Mail - COMsumer POST

January 3, 2003 09:49 AM

I've been listening to Tom's search for heritics recently and was reminded about the stamp story and the origins of the postage invented in Britain in 1840. Postage created new industries, including advertising and rapidly accelerated literacy rates. The parallels are important today, for e-mail, spam, and digital identity.

The printing and publishing industry of the time was caught up in the 'Industrial Revolution', benefiting from changes in manufacturing and exploiting developments in other network technologies - railways and telegraph.

Stamps were a reformers idea. Rowland Hill wrote"Postal Reform; its Importance and Practibilitiy" in 1837. The plan introduced stamps and uniform low rates, which made it universally affordable. It also dramatically cut the accounting costs of the Royal Mail who up and till then logged each individual letter. Let's be clear. Up until 1840 the "receiver" paid. After 1840 the "sender" paid. Until 1840 the system was high cost, with frauds on it common.

Within a few years the stamp revolution spread around the world. For additional statistics see The Economic and Social Background to Victorian Print Culture

Post packets.gif

Today 163 years (May 2003) later the postal revolution has peaked. The efficiencies driven to a point where AOL can create metal non-recyclable CD sign-up trash and still make a business case for putting it in my mailbox. An with e-mail yep we have improved the immediacy of the delivery and reduced the costs. And behold.... just like pre 1840 the receiver pays, the system is increasingly spamed and fraud is more rampant.

What was the platform they launched the penny post on? "Mothers and fathers who wish to have news of your absent children; Friends who are separated and wish to write to each other; Emigrants who do not want to forget your motherland; Farmers who want to know the best place to sell your produce; Workers and labourers who want to find the best work and the highest wages" to support their postal reform measure."

It went beyond their wildest dreams. The rapid rise in literacy; an unexpected consequence. The passion to learn played a great role. With the internet we have the greatest learning and productivity tool so far.

The case and outcomes for a digital COMsumer Post will go way beyond our thinking today. The final comments here introduce an idea, that creates markets for digital identity by moving the postal system from an industrial paradigm to today's knowledge paradigm.

Should we look at POST another way? At issue is the value of access to our personal mailbox. We think about e-mail without thinking about the history and purpose of the postal system. Today the post box in front of my house is public and I receive 98% ineffective direct mail offers. Some put up no solicitation signs etc. The telephone directory is public and I suffer more abuse from telemarketers. However e-mail is completely free. Get my address get spam! Put an e-mail on a website, get more spam.

Is it possible that what we have is the postal system before the stamp revolution? Stamps put a price on sending. However they also drove efficiencies that enabled lower tarriffs, and accelerated more profitable exchages, be they personal or business. (Can anyone tell me where bills and checks fit into this story and early timeline?) Have you looked recently at the value spent dumping trash in your mailbox? Postage plus printing costs?

Our digital mail system is currently free, and increasingly suffering from receiver based inefficiencies. Could the price of free acceptance be too high? It seems the few are spoiling it for the many. It's also costing senders. It's harder than ever to look up an e-mail address. Why can't I just look it up and link it with a phone number? We give our phone numbers away almost without thinking. With e-mail there are reservations. Many have multiple addresses, separating public, business and private, with different levels of profiling information (and honesty) attached to each.

Perhaps it's time to re-think mail. How can we keep it free for the public, our preferred business suppliers etc. while putting a price on spam, that turns it back into information we want to eat.

At the same time we can return the stamp value of "post" to the people. It's no longer efficient to get your power bill via the post or pay it using the postal system. Done correctly, it's USPS that will have a problem. Perhaps literally we only need one physical delivery per week.

Let's start thinking out a solution. I'll call it COMsumer Post - after The COMsumer Manifesto. This is a world in which we all are paid to receive mail. It's a world where different levels of transparency surround our profiles. COMsumer Post is the system that enables the market for consumer information to arise.

Let me say this is not choice mail! Both Kevin Werbach and Jon Udell made recent posts on that subject. This piece on the impact of choice mail Jon's Radiois a great illustration. Choice mail assumes all incoming mail is spam unless it's mails from a buddy - approved source.

More to come.... Tying Smart Mobs to Post and Digital Identity.