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 ?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be so sure about it.
Actually it depends on how you are using your mail client.
As to me it's rather a kind of database or a file storage. I'm simply keeping the mails I may need to refer later in dedicated folder. These can be ones either sent to me or sent by me. So you anyway need some formal fields to be used as search attributes. And the natural ones "From", "To" and "Subject" seem to be rather suitable.
I also use mails as a kind of address book. I'm keeping any occasional mail from my contact I want to stay in touch with in a separate folder again. So that rather mail body is of no interest but "From" is required.
And on the contrary to what you are saying: the "From" field allows not to care about being formal subscribing your mails. The recipient sees anyway who is writing him or her in the "From" field.