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Email Feedback Loops And Some Internet History

[Photo: John W. Furst]
John W. Furst
In 1994 about 14 years ago I started to use the Internet at the University campus. Very quickly Email became one of the most important tools for me and it is still today. However, with the upcoming of spammers and anti-spam measures Email has lost some of it's reliability.

I mean, are you sure you receive all important email messages, or are you sure all your messages you send are received?

I'll show you in a minute what I do to make sure Email works reliably for me, even for most important communication needs. Before that, let me tell you, how it all began for me (scroll down, if you are in a hurry).

How It All Began

Do you remember those times, when the “World Wide Web” and it's HTTP protocol were fairly new. I remember using the following services and protocols to find and research information on the Net. (This was not exactly fun and easy like it is today.)
  • Gopher
  • Archie
  • FTP
  • Email
Here are the details about those ancient protocols and services.
  • Gopher

    Gopher is a distributed document search and retrieval network protocol designed for the Internet. Its goal is to function as an improved form of Anonymous FTP, enhanced with hyperlinking features similar to that of the World Wide Web.

    The Gopher protocol offers some features not natively supported by the Web and imposes a much stronger hierarchy on information stored on it. Its text menu interface is well-suited to computing environments that rely heavily on remote computer terminals, common in universities at the time of its creation in 1991 until 1993.

    With the vast popularity of the World Wide Web, Gopher is all but disused at present, with remaining sites being run by individual enthusiasts. Source: Wikipedia

  • Archie

    A simple search engine for content on FTP servers created in 1990, which could be queried by email or direct login with telnet, and later via a Web interface

  • FTP

    Most of the information was stored on FTP servers at those days. You had to deal with lots of file listings and plain test files. There were graphics, but not embedded into the document.

Things started to change for the better with the rise of the Web and the use of the Mosaic/Netscape browser. Suddenly pictures could be shown inside a document and could be clicked…

There was something else: Email

It turned out that email became very quickly one of the most important applications and services for me. I was traveling a lot between the USA and Europe, but I still could communicate with my friends and colleagues quite effectively (most of them already had email).

Now more than a decade later Email is still my preferred means of communication for any purpose. Especially for business. (Yes, I also use the phone from time to time.)

The Problem

Email doesn't always reach the recipient's inbox, does it? An error message will usually be returned to the sender, if the email address is wrong, the mail box is full,… but not for any spam filter related issues.

Most email service providers don't support sending back a delivery report (spammers have abused this to harvest email addresses), and even message display reports are not widely supported or turned off in most email clients nowadays.

I want to remark that delivery of a non-registered piece of postal mail (snail mail) is not guaranteed either. And in my experience email works more reliably anyway with the additional benefit that you can retrieve your messages Worldwide while you are traveling.

In fact email deliverability of my personal messages never has been an issue for me and I safely assume no one involved has a problem once an email conversation is ongoing.

However, I remember some people could not get their email through to me sometimes. This can be critical in some situations, where one needs to meet deadlines or something like that.

Let me tell you, what I am doing about this. It's not a perfect solution (because it is not automated), but it works pretty good.

Give People Confidence: Establish A Chain Of Feedback

A very simple solution is to use an autoresponder on your incoming email box that sends back a message to the sender.

I don't use this on general purpose email accounts, but on those where I receive important email messages and notifications.
  • The senders know a delivery report and error messages will be returned by my mail box.
  • If not, they should call by phone.
  • The delivery report also contains further info what to do, if I don't respond let's say in 2 business days.

    Here is what I am writing in most of my autoresponders:

    Subject: [Auto-Reply] Your Subject

    Your message to is on its way.

    There's a very good chance your email has been delivered to my inbox, unless you have received a 'failure notice' from with a specific error report like 'Mailbox Full', etc.

    I usually will get back to you within 2 business days, if a response is necessary.


    P.S.: In case of an emergency or if I don't get back to you in a timely fashion, please, call me at my mobile. Leave a brief message including a phone number(s) where you can be reached. You find my mobile telephone number in my email signature. Thank you.

    P.P.S.: However, my preferred media for communication is email.

    Feel free to steal it from me, but change the mail addresses and adapt it to your specific needs. As you can see I am not including my phone number in this messages, because I know this email address is only used by parties, whom I have given my phone numbers before.

That's for giving people who need to send important messages to me the confidence that it will be taken care of, and it eases me, because I know there is a closed feedback loop.

It doesn't stop there. On the other hand when I am sending important emails
  • I always ask for a quick email back to confirm delivery.
  • If I don't get it, I simple call the other party to check the status.
  • When it comes to automatically sent email notifications, I don't rely on them. I check status of important things, when my task list shows I should do it, regardless of any email alert. That way I cannot miss anything.

How do you make sure email works in a reliable fashion for you?
Leave a comment and let us know?

John W. Furst


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Paul N. on :


I have to agree that email has become a pain and no I'm not sure that all my email is received.

I'm specifically wary of hotmail sending emails to spam for no real reason, or email cycling around for up to 5 days before it's returned to say it can't be delivered.

I enjoy about 1000 spam emails a day, nearly all of which spamassassin deals with for me.

Where is the future for communicating? I'm now using instant messaging a lot more, however t he other day I had someone spam me on skype!

Cindy King on :


Great article, I was happy to post it in my blog carnival. Remember to go back and cast a vote for yourself!

John W. Furst on :


Thanks for the note, Cindy! I almost overlooked that poll. :-)

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