Your attention is precious. Value it.

The rise of computers and of the Internet has made sending messages unprecedently cheap. Moreover, creating messages that are going to be sent is also unprecedently cheap (think of copy-paste and of messages generated programmatically). To make things even worse, finding potential recipients also has been made easier (web search, bots, databases etc.).

On the other hand, processing messages is still (in principle) done by humans, with the same 24-hour length of day, the same reading speed etc. This creates an asymmetry: much more information is sent than can be processed by an individual person. It is problematic not only to the receivers, but also to the legitimate senders who need to compete with each other and with spammers.

Furthermore, individual messages compete not only with other messages, but also with other activities of the receiver, which are often directly profitable or otherwise important. As a result, some of the potential senders may refrain from writing messages at all, because of some inner honesty that tells them to not impose a burden on the receiver (the “didn’t want to bother you” syndrome) or because of lack of belief that their message will be treated seriously.

How does the modern civilization tackle these issues?

There are administrative countermeasures to pure spam (blacklists etc.).

There are government regulations limiting the right to send emails. As a result, in some countries it is illegal to send an unsolicited advertisement, even if the advertiser genuinely believes that the potential customer may be interested in the product.

There are statistical and AI algorithms used for automatic filtering of content. You may not know which messages are important for you, but the cloud does (see for example importance markers in Gmail). Or at least it pretends so, as obviously current AI is not able to understand more sophisticated content (yet). Cloud AI works at the expense of collecting mass amount of data about you. This data may then be used to sell advertisements. You (your attention) are the product which is being sold. The money however does not go to you, but to the advertising platforms.

And there are also Patreon-like services with VIP access packages. There may be nothing inherently bad with them, except perhaps their centralized architecture, but they seem to be suited best for fan societies, not necessarily for individual messages about concrete issues.

Another solution

The problems described above sound more or less like the classic problem of imbalance between supply and demand. Therefore we can summon capitalism to the rescue: if there are too many unsolicited emails that demand your attention, you raise the price of that attention1.

How can this be done? In a simple variant, you allow people to pay to make their messages prioritized in some way. I’ve written a program, Mail Flagger, which does just that: it flags (stars) messages or copies them to another folder in reaction to payments. A plugin system for custom actions (like phone notifications) is conceivable and should be easy to implement.

Payment methods can be provided via plugins; two are available in the initial release and provided out of the box. For ordinary bank transfers, it is possible to import transactions in the MT940 format. This can be cumbersome (for the receiver) and also bank transfers are often delayed and sometimes expensive. For a smoother experience, one may want to consider cryptocurrency usage. Ercoin is the one that is currently supported. (This is a cryptocurrency that I’ve created and one of its design goals was to make creating such applications easy from the perspective of the user and the programmer. This is achieved in particular by allowing transaction messages that, in this case, are used to encompass email queries. For other features, see “Reasons to be interested in Ercoin”).

Mail Flagger is free (as in freedom) desktop application (hence your email password is stored locally, not in some cloud service), licensed under Apache License 2.0. Written in Python, it is cross-platform, with pre-built packages for Windows and macOS.

This is of course only a first step in payment-induced mail prioritization, which does not currently implement more sophisticated logic like sender-dependent payment thresholds or performing different actions based on the amount paid. But even this MVP version gives much more flexibility than the present state policy of zero payment for every mail.

  1. Note that I write about “unsolicited email”. I don’t encourage you to, for example, make your girlfriend or boyfriend pay to make you read an email. But if you decide for it anyway, feel free to describe the outcome.