Our online relationships are almost all transactional. A purely transaction digital life can't feel as rich and satisfying as one based on interactional relationships. As more of our relationships are intermediated by technology, finding ways to support interactional relationships will allow us to live authentic digital lives.
We don't build identity systems to manage identities. Rather we build identity systems to manage relationships.
Given this, we might rightly ask what kind of relationships are supported by the identity systems that we use. Put another way, what kind of online relationships do you have? If you're like me, the vast majority are transactional. Transactional relationships focus on commercial interactions, usually buying and selling, but not always that explicit. Transactional relationships look like business deals. They are based on reciprocity.
My relationships with Amazon and Netflix are transactional. That's appropriate and what I expect. But what about my relationships on Twitter? You might argue that they are between friends, colleagues, or even family members. But I also classify them as transactional.
My relationships on Twitter exist within Twitter's administrative control and they facilitate the relationship in order to monetize it. Even though you’re not directly participating in the monetization and may even be unaware of it, it nevertheless colors the kind, frequency, and intimacy of the interactions you have. Twitter is building their platform and making product decisions to facilitate and even promote the kinds of interactions that provide the most profit to them. Your attention and activity are the product in the transaction. What I can do in the relationship is wholly dependent on what Twitter allows.
Given this classification, the bulk of our online relationships are transactional, or at least commercial. Very few are what we might call interactional relationships. Except for email. Email is one of the bright exceptions to this landscape of transactional, administrated online relationships. If Alice and Bob exchange emails, they both have administrative, transactional relationships with their respective email providers, but the interaction does not necessarily take place within the administrative realm of a single email provider. Let's explore what makes email different.
The most obvious difference between email and many other systems that support online relationships is that email is based on a protocol. As a result:
- The user picks and controls the email server—With an email client, you have a choice of multiple email providers. You can even run your own email server if you like.
- Data is stored on a server "in the cloud"—The mail client needn't store any user data beyond account information. While many email clients store email data locally for performance reasons, the real data is in the cloud.
- Mail client behavior is the same regardless of what server it connects to—As long as the mail client is talking to a mail server that speaks the right protocol, it can provide the same functionality.
- The client is fungible—I can pick my mail client on the basis of the features it provides without changing where I receive email.
- I can use multiple clients at the same time—I can use one email client at home and a different email client at work and still see a single, consistent view of my email. I can even access my mail from a Web client if I don't have my computer handy.
- I can send you email without knowing anything but your email address.—none of the details about how you receive and process email are relevant to me. I simple send email to your address.
- Mail servers can talk to each other across ownership boundaries—I can use Gmail, you can use Yahoo! mail and the mail still gets delivered.
- I can change email providers easily or run my own server.—I receive email windley.org even though I use Gmail. I used to run my own server. If Gmail went away, I could start running my own server again. And no one else needs to know.
In short, email was designed with the architecture of the internet in mind. Email is decentralized and protocological. Email is open—not necessarily open-source—but open in that anyone can build clients and servers that speak its core protocols: IMAP and SMTP. As a result, email maximizes freedom of choice and minimizes the chance of disruption.
The features and benefits that email provides are the same ones we want for every online relationship. These properties allow us to use email to create interactional relationships. The important insight is that systems that support interactional relationships can easily support transactional ones as well, where necessary. But the converse is not true. Systems for building transactional relationships don't readily support interactional ones.
I believe that email's support for richer relationships is a primary reason it has continued to be used despite the rise of social media and work platforms like Slack and Teams. I'm not saying email is the right platform for supporting modern, online interactional relationships—it's not. Email has obvious weaknesses, most prominently it doesn't support mutual authentication of the parties to a relationship and therefore suffers from problems like SPAM and phishing attacks. Less often noted, but equally disqualifying is that email doesn't easily lend itself to layering other protocols on top of if—creative uses of MIME notwithstanding.
I've been discussing appropriate support for authenticity and privacy in the last few posts, a key requirement for interactional relationships on the internet. A modern answer to interactional relationships has to support all kinds of relationships from pseudonymous, ephemeral ones to fully authenticated ones. DIDComm is a good candidate. DIDComm has the beneficial properties of email while also supporting mutual authentication for relationship integrity and layered protocols for flexible relationship utility. These properties provide an essential foundation for building rich online relationships that feel more life-like and authentic, provide better safety, and allow people to live effective online lives.