October 16, 2008

Why do e-mails have subject ?

Real mail doesn't need subject, nor headers of any kind really. Could you imagine

From: Leo Tolstoy
To: Anton Chekhov
Subject: Re[2]: War and peace
Date: 16.03.1899

My dear Anton,


What is the point for e-mail to have headers anyway ? Some of them are transport level technical details. For example, To and From field serve about the same function as the physical letter envelope with handwritten addresses on it. But subject, what is in subject ?

It always takes me considerably more time to come up with a sound subject, and it still almost always says nothing about the contents of the letter. What's the point ?

Is it presumable e-mail volume, so that the user could just look over the long list of subjects without actually opening it ? Or is it limited space on 1970s terminal screens ? Or it is just a technical artefact for the sake of e-mail indexing, storing and referencing ?

Anyhow, right now, neither subject, nor From, nor To fields mean anything.

If a given e-mail is indeed a mail message sent to me, then I don't care about neither To (which is implicit - me), nor From (which is expected to be politely included in the body) nor subject (which, like I said is meaningless when written by a well-meaning sender). I simply open the message and read it entirely.

If, on the other hand, the e-mail is a spam, I care about From, To, or subject even less. I just trash it (in fact, my e-mail filter does it for me).

Then, either way, I care only about the contents, not about From, To or Subject. The key problem is really in separating letters from noise. But then From, To and Subject don't help it either. What's the point in having it ?