Spam Fixation
It seems as if everyone wants to hunt down the spammers and make laws against people who call us on the telephone. The real problem is managing our availability. Computers make it easy for people to send us email but they also give us the means to take charge of our availability.01-Feb-2003

I'm afraid of the spam hunters. They are trying to find all those bad people and get rid of them. It seems obvious that there is something called Spam and we must get rid of it. Having a simple term, even if it's still a trademark for Hormel's Deviled Ham, has misframed the problems.

Sure there are lots of scams, such as those from Nigeria and, even more amazing, people seem to fall for it. But fraud is nothing new. Much of the spam isn't much different from the ads I've seen on TV for making money placing ads in newspapers or buying foreclosed merchandise. Much of the mail is not that different from the advertising flyers I see in my paper mail. In fact, I often see legitimate business trying to use these mailing lists as if they were paper mail lists.

In fact, it really is the same and it is the same as those telemarketing calls and other intrusions on our attention. And those who send spam are not intrinsically bad people though many are often naive. OK, some are indeed con artists but saying that everyone vying for our attention is a scammer is as bad as saying that anyone who hacks with computers is evil.

What we need are tools to manage our attention. Even if we assumed that people don't want to exaggerate, we can't expect important e-mail to be correctly labeled "important". After all, if you see paper mail that says "important" you know the odds are that it isn't.

The real importance depends on the particulars of the situation, the relationships between the two parties, the crises du jour and the dynamic state of ones tasks and attention.

While the low cost of sending email makes it easy to spam (see I can use that word) millions of people, attempting to put a charge on it won't really solve the problem even if such schemes were feasible. It's the same fantasy as having telemarketers paying to ring your phone. Which friends are free and which will have to pay?

People have a legitimate reason for wanting our attention. After all, how would commerce work if there were no way for vendors to make you aware of their existence or to educate you as to why you need their product. OK, some of the educating goes overboard but advertising is part of the necessary processing of making you aware of products and vendors. And making you aware of ideas, community events and social opportunities. It's a way of helping you learn about the world and opportunities.

The fundamental problem is that the balance is out of whack. With the improved communications, starting with the postal system, we've become increasingly available. It's very simple to get people's names and addresses. In the paper world, if necessary, you don't even need someone's name, just an address. Phone numbers are especially problematic because they give immediate entr�e into our lives and reaches a whole family with one probe. Email addresses are easy to find because we do need to make ourselves very accessible.

We need to restore the balance. We need to control access to our attention and we must be able to determine our own priorities.

The problem is not that email is free. It's that we treat our email address like our home address and then act surprised when everyone assumes they have a right drop in unannounced. After all we asked them in by giving them our address. Or we encourage intrusion by allowing phone calls to preempt all other activities.

We can start to find a balance by giving people tokens that can be used to vie for our attention. Each token is unique and we can use it to prescreen the access. I use a limited form of it myself -- when I give out an email address I include a description of the sender. When I get the letter, even if it's buried deep in a mailing list, I know who sent it and, to some extent why. Note that the information is on the envelope of the letter. The header you see is like the letter inside the envelope -- it has nothing to do with how the letter is actually delivered. Unfortunately most email programs discard this information but that can be fixed as part of upgrading the tools to give us control over our exposure. Each email exchange would have a unique identification so that we can track ensuing letters.

I could then give priority to mail sent from a professional organization's mailing list over addresses found in more public lists. Of course I wouldn't type such an address -- that's what computers are for. And I needn't remember such addresses since, again, my computer takes care of that. Nor do I need to write down the long addresses since I can tell someone how to find the address in the appropriate directory if necessary or can give them a business card with the information. But I don't want to bore you with implementation details, just to explain the concept.

Since you are managing your exposure you can be creative. If you want to sell priority access to your attention you can do that by having tokens that you charge for. Of course if you do too good a job managing access you may deprive yourself of the opportunity for serendipity or new relationships. But that's your decision.

The important point is that instead of whining about spammer and hunting down all those bad spammers, you need to recognize that you can't solve the spam problem because it's a small part of the larger problem of managing access to your attention. Simply being on mailing lists can overwhelm you even if it's by choice. If each incoming message were pretagged and gave you an indication of why you got it, then you can start to defend yourself.

I can understand the desire for vengeance on the spammers and on the marketers that call during dinner. It's even worse if you fall for a scam or run malevolent application or a web site that hijacks your home page.

I share the fantasies of revenge even though I know it is futile. It is far more satisfying to be in control of your life. That might be expecting too much but at least you can use your computer to help you with managing missives that come via email. You should be able to manage your email messages (spam) for better than you can manage the intrusions via traditional media such as paper mail and the telephone and those who ring your doorbell.

We shouldn't confuse scams and other attacks with spam. Spam is indeed a vector for such attacks but the two issues are separate. A website that hijacks my home page is no different than the sleazy email.

Much of my spam comes from those who see email as an extension of marketing via postal mail and, is in fact, an essential part of CRM. CRM is customer relationship management. Email is, in a sense, simply the "push" side of having a web site. It's only because email is modeled after a crippled version of paper mail that we have such a sharp distinction. After all, if we're connected what I really want is a notice of when there is something of interest and, even then, only when there is a match between my needs and interests at that moment and the information being provided. Just because a new DVD is available doesn't mean I want to order it immediately. (The DVD as a bit transport vs. the Internet is an issue in itself).

Unfortunately the idea of reaching out via email is indeed easy and even those who attempt to be most careful can overwhelm me or be tainted by association with spam. In fact, we need some surprises and serendipity.

The solution is not to blame the spammers, the solution is to take charge of our availability and gain control over our availability. We can start by recognizing that we are victims of bad tools and a lack of understanding more than we are victims of spammers.