Email's special power

Software that requires people to explicitly declare the formation of these groups, and to acknowledge their dissolution, is too blunt an instrument for such ephemeral social interaction. Like an operating-system thread, an e-mail thread is a lightweight construct, cheap to set up and tear down. Could a protocol other than SMTP, and an application other than e-mail, support such interaction? Sure, but any other communication medium that has e-mail's special power to convene groups will suffer the same diseases that afflict e-mail: spam, abuse, infoglut. [Full story at]
When I recently threw some cold water on the notion that RSS is ready to displace email, I failed to articulate what, exactly, is so special about email. This column makes the case.

As much as I've used and thought about email, I never fully appreciated what an extraordinary thing the cc: header is. Not only do we use it to form groups spontaneously, across all kinds of boundaries, we use it to affirm or to adjust the membership of those groups. If you watch from a bird's eye perspective -- as social network analysts are beginning to do -- you see groups forming and dissolving with the unconscious fluidity of a cocktail party. Of course people also come and go in discussion forums, blog threads, and chats. But in these venues, every message doesn't reconstitute the group. When we strip everything else away from email, that single amazing quality -- at once powerful and problematic -- remains.

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