The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Monday, December 09, 2002

Pundits of all stripes will, with a regular frequency, dash off columns complaining of the hundreds of spam emails they have to sift through every day. Invariably, they'll demand a solution, usually along the lines of transforming email into a fee-based service (which will prevent spammers from sending out so many mails, since they'd have to pay for each one), or devising more sophisticated filtering programs, or similar schemes.

To all those who constantly complain about this: Wah. Fucking waaaaaaaaaaaaah.

A new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project on email usage and management has punctured a lot of what have become assumptions about this communication method. The notable finding is that most people, at work and at home, really don't find that they're getting slammed by an over-abundance of unwanted email. Most email users have figured out some very basic ways of keeping their frustration level down when it comes to spam--like actually using the filtering options in their email programs, for one. Being circumspect in giving out your email address also works wonders (see more below). More detailed results of the study are available here, and are well worth diving into.

So what's all the hubbub about how spam will cripple and kill the Internet by overloading servers? The loud whining comes from a relatively small group of "power users", who do most of their communicating via email. (Truth be told, I skew toward that behavior myself, both at work and home.) Apparently, they send out hundreds of emails a day themselves, then get miffed when they have to go through as many or more themselves. Sort of like when you shop for all your holiday gifts exclusively at the Dollar Store, and then getting mad when the gifts you receive back are of equal quality.

I've had this argument before, and there's a common thread that connects people who constantly have their inboxes stuffed to the gills: they give out their email addresses to EVERYONE! I mean, they give it to business colleagues, friends, family, message boards, EBay listings, etc. etc. etc. And then they complain when, predictably, they get tons of unsolicited mail.

Here's a clue, folks: The Internet is a public place. When you post your address on a message board, even an obscure one, that means it's available to everyone and everything (bots, etc.) out there. It's electronic graffitti. It's the equivalent of writing your phone number on a bathroom wall. The same goes for giving it to other people, because you know that Aunt Sally is going to come across some joke-of-the-day site that asks for a friend's email address so she can forward that clever little pun on to you. Once you let the secret out, the damage is done.

The solution is pretty simple: don't give your email address out indiscriminately, unless you're willing to get a lot of stuff back. Most ISPs will give you a few extra addresses; use them for different purposes. If that's not an option, get a free mailbox from Yahoo, Excite, Hotmail, etc. Be smart, and stop blaming everyone else for problems you bring on yourself.