Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Spam









Supplementary material

A cursory Google search for the word "technology" combined with "rudeness" reveals signs of a growing lack of inhibition in personal interactions over the internet and associated social media. It seems that the relative anonymity, physical distance between users and lack of serious consequences for transgressions can generate in many an anti-social attitude that can go from simple lack of empathy to extremely aggressive behaviour.

This is true of individuals, but it is also true of businesses; businesses that do not have the excuse of being emotional persons prone to all sorts of psychological impulses. Granted, businesses are managed by real-world people, but their decisions are expected to be the result of some kind of strategy, some kind of plan, and not just sudden whims dictated by the moment.

Naturally, businesses don't send threatening e-mails the way a few irate people do. Their goal is to get our money, not to scare us (unless they find a way to scare us into giving them money). But what they do, and with very little subtlety, is to subject us to a barrage of advertising. In the case of some websites, pop-up ads and slow-loading animated publicity sidebars can make a visit very unpleasant (and often fruitless), as we can hardly distinguish the website's message from all the noise of publicity. That's par for course, I suppose, as nobody forced us to visit that website; and such sites should eventually lose traffic and disappear. So no big deal in the long run.

For e-mail, printed fliers and telephone calls it's a different thing. In those cases we must sacrifice some of our time and attention to acknowledge the existence of, and get rid of, unwanted messages. It could be argued that it doesn't take much time to simply delete an unwanted e-mail, to hang up the phone, or to put fliers in the recycling bin. All of which is true. Furthermore, filters can be installed to keep most junk mail from ever reaching our attention. But in the communication ecosystem we witness a co-evolution of junk mail generators that are ever more clever in eluding anti-junk filters, and we see more and more genuine messages being treated as junk (thus forcing us, if we don't want to miss anything, to take a look at the long list of junk mail that might be genuine. And our dealing with all this junk does take time in the end.

The race between parasites (junk mail) and hosts (our communication devices) is nothing new, and I have faith that most systems will manage to stay one step ahead of the tide of junk that tries to get our attention. However, it looks as if simple rules of civil behaviour are being lost no matter what we do. Consider phone solicitation, as rude a form of communication as one can imagine. Calling people at dinner time to ask them if they're happy with their current car insurance is bad enough, but now we've gone one step further... it's a bloody machine that calls people at ungodly hours to deliver a recorded message. Are there actually people listening to such messages instead of slamming down the phone? Are there people who will actually give money to the company that rigged the whole operation? Probably very, very few, but even only a tiny fraction of a massively huge number of calls could generate a profit. This principle was the basis for a famous 1995 book written by two lawyers, a Mr. Carter and Ms. Siegel, How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway: Everyone's Guerrilla Guide to Marketing on the Internet and Other On-Line Services. The gist of the strategy is this: flood the world with publicity for whatever you're selling, and out of the teeny tiny percentage who respond you will make good money. This would not work with printed fliers or TV ads because of the costs involved, but with e-mail it becomes all too easy.

This type of strategy naturally means that actual information will be lost in a wave of irrelevant noise, as in the famous Monty Python sketch that gave these unwanted messages their popular name: spam. In this 1970 sketch, the famous canned meat product is ubiquitous and communication is regularly interrupted and made difficult by Vikings chanting the word "spam". (It is delightfully absurd, of course, as is pretty much any Monthy Python skit). The word "spam" itself, used in this context, goes back to 1993 according to this source (and references therein).

What galls me the most at present is how the majority of spam messages today contain very small characters at the end, graciously informing us that you can "unsubscribe" from the mailing list (as if you had ever subscribed in the first place!!!) to avoid receiving further communications from this particular source. Well, first, one doesn't just spit in the soup and say "if you don't like it, I won't do it again". That is not appropriate behaviour, quite obviously. Secondly, judging from personal experience, these senders regularly get new e-mail lists from a variety of sources. Even if we unsubscribe after receiving some junk message and that of address is duly removed from the current sending list, it will just pop up again on the sender's computer sooner or later. I keep unsubscribing from the same sender's list on a regular basis.

It's not a major crisis; it can squarely be called a rich person's problem. But what it says about the progressive loss of respect for the individual in our society is pretty sad. Simple politeness, which business at least pretended to observe so as not to antagonize their clientele, seems today to be as threatened as the Amur leopard.

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