Do you want to know a secret?

Whisper
Photo by Dr John 2005

There’s a strong bias in the web community towards openness. We all know information wants to be free, and we apply that to our daily lives through wikis, blogs, twittering. We’re very comfortable publishing content that’s available to the whole world.

Most people don’t behave like this. My parents worry about people knowing they’re away on vacation in case the house gets burgled, they go out of their way to make sure someone takes the mail in. Some engineers I’ve worked with hoard information like gold, afraid that if they give too much away they’ve lost their own value. Most parties require an invitation from the host, and to avoid giving offense you probably won’t tell anyone about it if they’re not on the list.

Email has a fine-grained, laborious but very powerful mechanism for controlling who sees any information. You specify exactly who it goes to. Others can forward it, but at least that requires an explicit action and leaves a trail.

Things start to get really interesting once you add circles of trust. JP Rangaswami opens up his mailbox to all his direct reports, but not to the rest of BT. Only my friends on Facebook can see that I’ve just turned 20 in hexadecimal.

Email is the biggest private silo of information by far. I’d be happy to share 75% of my mailbox with everybody I know, but there’s no way to do that, yet. But I’d only be willing to open up any of it if there was some way to be certain that the items I needed to be private really were sacrosanct.  The key to opening up email will be making sure there’s a simple and understandable way to keep secrets. Once we do that, we can take the next leap forward in email by liberating all of the information that’s currently gathering dust in everyone’s inboxes.

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