More than once I've mentioned my favorable experience with MCI Mail, the first commercial email service that could traverse the Internet. There were other mail services, yes, but they were originally confined to their own little sandboxes; from the beginning, anyone on CompuServe who knew my eight-character (later nine-character user ID) could send me messages, but no one outside CompuServe could write me until much later. I signed up for two boxes at thirty-five dollars a year, one for myself, another for a Secret Identity. I don't claim to have invented the sockpuppet, or to have inspired SwiftOnSecurity, but there's a definite sense of "Been there, done that" to both these latter-day phenomena.

The great thing about MCI Mail was that it was as all-inclusive as it was possible to be online in the middle 1980s. Each MCI Mail user had a seven-digit ID. (I had two consecutive IDs.) If you knew your recipient's ID, you just typed it in and sent; if you didn't, they'd look it up for you, but it would take a hair longer. Either way, you paid half a buck for the privilege, which was admittedly higher than what was not yet derisively called "snail mail" — First Class US postage in 1985 was twenty-two cents — but MCI Mail delivered in a matter of minutes, except when they couldn't, and there was only one instance I recall when they couldn't: when the recipient proved not to have an MCI Mail box. In this case, you'd be asked for the recipient's postal address, and the service would print out your letter and drop it in the mail. This cost a buck and a half, which seemed like a lot only if you'd never had a secretary on staff. And there was, of course, no spam: anyone who wanted to reach even ten percent of MCI Mail's 100,000 customers would perforce be billed for $5,000.

It couldn't last, and it didn't; as the Internet as we now know it began to coalesce, and new gateways opened up, proprietary mail systems would give way to more open standards, more open standards led to more customers, more customers led to lower operating costs, and eventually the price of email became essentially zero. Opportunistic individuals, and later machines controlled by opportunistic individuals, led to the unhappy state of today, when spam outweighs nonspam by somewhere around ten to one. I contend that this was inevitable as the marginal cost plummeted to, well, marginal.

Which is why I argue that Twitter, which is going nowhere in the marketplace — user growth is almost entirely bots — needs to charge a fee: say, ten bucks a month, or $100 a year if paid in advance. As things stand, anything can be forced to trend by the activation of enough machines, and Twitter, to my annoyance, promotes things that are trending, unless the fools they've delegated to moderate the arena choose not to promote such things for their own personal reasons. Either way, this is unacceptable in any service which claims to specialize in news. And since Twitter is losing money hand over clenched fist, it would be nice to have an alternative revenue stream. Even if 75 percent of Twitter's claimed 300 million users were to promptly vanish into the void, this fee would bring in half a billion dollars a month without so much as a single self-aggrandizing tweet from @jack, and I can't help but think it would make my timeline, and maybe yours, quite a bit easier to negotiate.

And please spare me the hangdog look that comes from arguing that not everybody can afford ten bucks a month. They're already paying several times that just for Internet access. The First Amendment guarantees you the right to speak; it doesn't guarantee you an audience, or a Uber to the Capitol grounds.

The Vent

  8 May 2017

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