Why is Spam So Irritating?

I have been thinking about why people have such a strong, violent reaction to e-mail spam and a much more ho-hum reaction to postal-based direct marketing.

I have to admit that I was partially inspired to revive this post-in-progress after reading The State of Consumer Email: Consumers Deserve Better :: AO on Always-On.

I am not convinced that I get more email spam than direct mail spam. Nonetheless, there are two widely-held views on why people have such a strong, violent reaction to spam:

Email spam often contains far more offensive content – First and foremost, the types of products and services advertised in spam are often orders of magnitude more offensive than those commonly found in direct mailings. There are some very legitimate concerns about keeping such illicit advertisements out of the inboxes of minors and youngsters. I also think that there are many people who don’t want their corporate inbox filled with advertisements for sex and Viagra not so much because it’s a distraction but because there might be employee Internet use policies that govern illicit material on corporate computers. Also, who wants their sysadmin seeing that they are getting tons of illicit spam?

Email spam has the potential for carrying viruses and other malware/spyware – Another legitimate concern is the realization that spam can contain spyware or malware that can damage computers and networks. Email has become the delivery vehicle of choice for most malware and will probably continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Aside from the obvious, agreed-upon reasons why people get so upset about spam, I have some other thoughts that I am willing to float for criticism/comment:

How did you get my email address anyway? For a long time, there was a sense that the Internet was a scary place filled with nefarious people waiting to steal your credit card information, social security number, or other valuable personal data. The fact that so much spam comes from providers who do not disclose how they obtained your email address only contributes to the fears of those who don’t trust the Internet. If your email address is floating around and readily available, what other information about you is floating around out there?

Spammers are anonymous – Trying to get in touch with the people who are generating spam can be challenging. Clicking “reply” to the message that one considers spam often doesn’t work as the sender’s mailbox is a broadcast email address that does not receive email. Opting out can work, provided that you can find the instructions in the 2 point font at the bottom of the footer in the email message. People are used to being about to reach out and contact people who are sending them unsolicited direct mail — the same is not true of spam.

Spammers are smarter than anti-spam tools (for the time being) – The only other market that I see with dynamics like anti-spam is anti-virus. There is this never-ending arms race between the assailants and the defenders. Every time an attacker develops a new, novel way in which to evade existing defenses (think about how resilient Klez and SQL Slammer were), the defenders must then develop a signature or scheme to prevent copycat attacks. This cycle continues ad nausea. If the anti-virus analogy holds, we will never see the end of spam — the arms race will continue in a cyclical pattern.

Spam can “crowd out” legitimate email from friends and family – My final point is that for those who are using email systems where their inbox size is constrained (most free email systems impose mailbox limits), receiving a large volume of spam eats into the storage quota available for legitimate email. I know lots of people who are frustrated by the fact that spam takes up 30-40% of the new email that they get in their Yahoo! or Hotmail account.

The one thing that I can’t get over, however, is that from an end user standpoint it doesn’t take me any more time to deal with spam than it does to deal with direct mail. A cursory scan of the sender in either case usually allows me to determine whether or not a piece of mail or email is legitimate. If it isn’t, it doesn’t take me any more time to throw it in the trash can than it does for me to press the delete key.

The only answer that I can get comfortable with is the idea that people view the inbox as a much more private space than the mailbox on the corner. You don’t have pictures of your grandkids in your postal mailbox. You don’t have your address book and contact list taped to the inside of your postal mailbox. Rightly or wrongly, people feel a much stronger right to privacy in the email inbox than they do when it comes to their postal mailboxes.

Before I get off my spam soapbox, I would like to challenge two popular ideas about spam.

Popular idea #1: End users will pay for spam-blocking tools – I must qualify this by saying that I am not an investor in any anti-spam tool/service company and I think that much money will be made in this space. However, I don’t expect the bulk of consumers to pay for spam-blocking directly. It will be a service that the free email providers (Yahoo!, MSN, etc.) will offer or continue to their users 1) for free to prevent switching or 2) as part of a bundled offering that includes a larger inbox or more advanced inbox features. The only users who will (and can) pay for spam-blocking tools will be those users who run desktop email programs such as Outlook, Outlook Express, or Eudora for their personal email.

Popular idea #2: The government, in an effort to protect the Internet, will move to outlaw spam. I don’t want to dwell on this one, but direct marketing is already affirmed as a legitimate business. Government could move to stiffen penalties for spammers, take a more aggressive pro-consumer stance on spam, or enact new legislation to protect the consumer inbox. In the end, I can’t craft an argument for why the government should move to outlaw email-based direct marketing.