Lacking a Common Language

by J.D. Falk
Director of Product Strategy, Receiver Services

Human communication takes many forms, from the dense poetry of Shakespeare’s plays to the rigorous precision of IETF documents to the false apologies conveyed by emoticons. Metaphors seem like the greatest thing since sliced bread, while verbal puns can creep up on the unwary like a faux queue in arrears. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, like a bull in a china shop, inaccurate cliches and colloquialisms can actually impede communication — particularly technical communication.

Some of the terms I see floating around the industry are silly and annoying, but probably harmless. Are you really a rock star if you’ve never gyrated on stage in front of 50,000 screaming fans? Can you call yourself a ninja when you want everyone to be able to see you, or a guru when your wisdom does not lead to enlightenment?

We all laughed when now-former US Senator Ted Stevens famously explained the Internet by saying “It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.” In context, it’s clear that he actually had no idea what he was talking about — but he was getting closer, because the “big truck” analogy is far more flawed than the “series of tubes”.

Misunderstanding common terms can also lead to far bigger mistakes. In a recent letter, the United Kingdom’s “Minister for Digital Britain” the Right Honourable Stephen Timms thought an IP address was an “intellectual property address” — which could lead to some very odd notions about content on the internet. Passing laws based on those odd notions could be damaging indeed.

For some time, my colleague Stephanie Miller has been campaigning to get ESPs to stop using the term “delivered” — which, in the SMTP context, simply means a message has been handed from one MTA to another — because outside of that context, it gives the false impression that the message landed in the intended recipient’s inbox.

And of course there’s the section of a message which email marketers describe as a “pre-header,” even though it is actually after what email technologists and email software have been calling the headers for more than 25 years. (“Pre” means “before”.) Ask anyone who works in email technology if changing your pre-header would improve the open rate for a particular vertical, and they’ll hang up on you in confusion — none of those terms (pre-header, open rate, or vertical) apply to email, though obviously they’re important in marketing. Is it any wonder that marketers and technologists find communication so difficult?

On the other hand, sometimes the quest for a more precise definition gets in the way. There’s no better example than the definition of spam, which has been argued for more than sixteen years even though there’s never been any disagreement about the vast majority of it. So since the mid-2000s, the biggest ISPs have all been saying the same thing: if their users think it’s spam, then it’s spam. This lets them instead rely on the only measure that really matters to them: customer satisfaction. Finally, something technologists and marketers can agree on!

Dave Crocker (who could be called a guru, but is too visible to be a ninja) likes to tell a story about the early days of the OSI model, which provides a conceptual framework for discussing network architecture and protocols by differentiating between (for example) the physical layer, the network layer, and the presentation layer. Before the OSI model, Dave told me, every protocol design meeting would start with an hour arguing about terminology. Afterwards, every protocol design meeting would start with an hour arguing about the flaws in the OSI model — and the rest of the time using the OSI model. Today, of course, the the OSI model is so standard that we forget there was ever a time without it.

We have a similarly precise vocabulary for use in email, codified in RFC 5598. This document defines all of the different parts of a Mail Handling System, recognizing that most of the individual roles (or “agents”) are invisible to users. For example, the Mail User Agent you use on your desktop acts on your behalf as the software Author of messages you write, and Originator when submitting that message to the Relay which knows how to transfer it towards the intended recipients. Your Mail User Agent will also retrieve messages from a remote Message Store, and save them in a local Message Store for you to read, search through, et cetera.

Though they can be daunting at first, once you get used to them these serious-sounding technical phrases make a lot of sense. They’re clear, concise, and used by most of the people who make the internet work. Even when they’re not clear or concise, the fact that most of the people who make the internet work have begun using them ought to be a clue that you should also use those terms when talking with those people.

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