We use it for everything, and most of us have no control. It’s kind of insane.
Take a few seconds and think about all of the accounts you’ve got linked to your email account. Social Media, Messaging, Entertainment, Video Games, Credit Cards, Bills, Rent, Banking, Taxes. The list is endless for most. Email has ingrained itself in every part of our day-to-day lives. Most of us check our email inboxes regularly. Many of us get a vibrating notification in our pocket or on our wrist the second a message comes in. Despite the rise of a new generation of instant messaging clients like Slack, it is still the de-facto form of communicating with people professionally, and has long replaced 🐌 “snail-mail” for most things in our lives.
Let me stress that I don’t want to call out email as the enemy. Quite the contrary. I love email! The near-instant, but still asynchronous1, communication has permanently altered the way that professionals, friends, and family alike talk to each other around the world.
My fear is founded in the fact that most of us have email addresses that we do not control.
I’ve used the same primary email address, a Gmail address, for a little over 10 years. The thought of having to change it is horrifying. I cannot fathom the hours required to log into each service I use, each site I have an account on, and try to change my email address. Some simply won’t let you change a primary email address. Some make you call a customer service representative. For others, I have long since forgotten my password, and the only recourse is to have a temporary password sent…to my email account!
Most of us could lose access to our email account in an instant. Years of history - gone. Access to all of your important accounts becomes that much harder. Fear-mongering? Maybe. But you read the horror stories online all the time. Every email provider has a list of rules which you agreed to and probably didn’t read. Violating any one of those rules could be cause for instant termination of your account with no recourse.
So, what do we do about it?
I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all solution. In a best-case world, each of us would have our own email address at our own domain, and run our own email servers on hardware that we control. But that’s not in the least bit realistic. Services like Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo Mail, Proton Mail…whatever you use - they are amazing because they let us use the magic of email without having to manage all of the tricky bits. Email servers are complicated, and I say that as an engineer hacking on UNIX/Linux systems every day. I am glad we have the option to use these different email hosts. Yes, even Gmail has outages. Yet they have an infrastructure that is far more robust than you or I could put together, and have an uptime far better than most of us can do on our own. That’s just the reality of keeping hardware running. Could you do better? Maybe, if you ran a resilient cluster of your own email servers, replicated across multiple cloud providers around the world, on top of your own hardware churning away in your garage. You would still be subject to the whims of global network issues that these massive cloud providers face.
I don’t have a proposal to fix the situation. I do have a proposal to help alleviate some of my concerns.
My proposal has three basic tiers:
Easy difficulty: Export and keep local backups of email. Create a secondary email with another provider and add it to all the services that let you. First and foremost, this is to preserve your email history. It has an immense value that you should fight to protect. This is simple and anyone can do it. I won’t bother going into the details of how to save local backups of your email. Enough has been written on that already. You might not even need to manually export data from your provider - just using an email client on your machine with IMAP may be enough. The second step is to create a secondary free email address with another provider, and add that as a backup to as many accounts and services as you can. You gain some peace-of-mind in case you do ever lose access to your primary account.
Medium difficulty: Set up your own email address with a free hosted provider such as Gmail. In this case, you will own your email address. For example,
email@example.com be mine. Google can never take that from me. Many email providers, such as Gmail, will let you use a custom email address with their services. You are still subject to their terms and conditions, but if you ever lose access to your account their, you won’t actually lose access to your email. Again, I won’t go over the details of how to do this, but there are plenty of guides available. If you followed step 1 and maintain local, offline backups of your email, then there isn’t really much risk of ever losing access to your email account or losing your history. There is a small cost required: the annual cost of owning a domain, but even those can be had very cheap. In my opinion, this offers the best of both worlds. You have more control over your email address, but you get the benefits of a cloud-hosted email provider.
Hard difficulty: Host your own email server. I don’t recommend this for most people. I’ve thought about it, and overall the effort doesn’t seem worth it to me. But for those of you that want to truly take control of your email, the only option is to host your own server. If you go this route, I would still recommend using a cloud provider for a VM. A simple VPS will be enough for most people, and there are many cheap options available. If you choose to run your server on your own local hardware, keep in mind the energy costs, the other (mental, physical) costs associated with keeping hardware running 24/7, and the networking details you’ll have to work out with your internet provider. There are some modern attempts at all-in-one solutions that I have never tried. Otherwise, Linode has a good guide on running a mail server. It’s actually a great exercise in Linux system administration and networking, but it’s not something I would recommend unless you enjoy troubleshooting technical problems.
Myself? I prefer option number 2. It has a small cost and a small degree of difficulty, but overall it’s the right choice for a balance of controlling your own email, and taking advantage of what email hosts can give you. Regardless of what you choose, keep in mind that you probably don’t have any control over your email, and that’s worth being concerned about.
Want to say hi? I’d love to hear from you! Shoot me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s important to remember that Email, while virtually instant, is asynchronous in nature. It is non-blocking, and allows all members of an email correspondence to read and respond in an offline manor. This is an important distinction between email and instant messaging solutions. ↩