Friday, May 13, 2011

What Is Spam?

Spam sushi is an odd delicacy of Hawaii.   I was frankly surprised at how much I liked it during my visit to the islands.  Did you know that Hawaii is one of the biggest markets for Spam lunch meat?   Online spam  (which now consists of not only e-mails but also tweets, shouts and all other sorts of electronic communications) is certainly much less loved than  Hawaii's favorite snack.  And something that happened on Twitter yesterday leaves me thinking again about the veritable question, What Is Spam?

It might be tempting to say that spam is in the eye of the beholder.   Though it seems that senders never behold spam quite as recipients do.   Adriel Hampton posted a unique online petition which urged people to re-tweet a message to Empire Avenue CEO Duleepa Wijayawardhana  requesting that activity in Facebook groups be counted towards Empire Avenue scores.    My buddy (e)HART  like me re-tweeted the message,  but also wondered aloud what the purpose was.   Dups replied to both of us that the "spam"  was a distraction to people who are working hard to improve Empire Avenue.   He was very polite about it,  but he did complain that the messages were "spamming" him.

It got me to thinking of something that happened early in my career at Sprynet where I was in charge of customer service e-mail.    A customer wanted something,  to cancel his service and get a refund perhaps,  and when he got our auto-reply explaining when and how his request would be processed, he was dis-satisfied with the wait time and began sending hundreds and hundreds of duplicate e-mails demanding that we immediately put a refund to his credit card.   I e-mailed my boss and suggested that we Not expedite this customer's refund,  on the grounds that if it became known that sending a few thousand spams into our inbox was the way to get your money back quicker,  we would soon find ourselves in a position where we spent most of our time dealing with spam,  at the expense of ramping up our customer service department to handle our rapidly growing customer base.   My boss agreed and we left the spammer's original request in the queue and deleted all the duplicates,  which he continued to send for several days,  although I wrote back to him explaining as politely as possible what spam is,  why it's not okay and when and how his request would be handled.   My boss even called the guy and asked him to stop spamming us.   Eventually the issue was escalated a few levels beyond my boss' head and an executive asked me to process an immediate refund and send the guy an apology before his original message had made it through the queue to an agent.

My takeaway from that incident was that while spam is wrong,  sometimes it actually works.   Which is why people sometimes do it,  even if they are well aware it is considered rude and in some states (including here in Washington) it is actually illegal now.      I honestly don't know what communication may or may not have transpired between Dups and Adriel-- Adriel's petition was designed so that dups could sign into it,  acknowledging the msg and stopping the continued re-tweeting  (or as Dups called it "spam").     The customer who was frustrated with an ISP's cancellation and refund processing probably didn't look upon himself as a spammer.   Though the people who received his messages did.   I've read that almost 80% of spam comes from fewer than 100 actual individuals and companies.    And I have to wonder whether the folks who spam for profit-- and clearly it can be profitable or our channels of electronic communications would not be jammed full of it,  consider that they are doing anything morally or socially wrong.    

When I was new on the Internet I learned that spam was the same message posted in more than one place.    Or an identical e-mail sent to more people than could reasonably be expected to want to receive it.   I still look at spam mostly in numerical terms.   Yet I belong to an organization that contacts elected officials and other decision makers on issues important to us.   A group specifically set up to send thousands  of identical constituent messages into political offices.   Political staffs used to reply to every letter and e-mail received,  although it seems as though most no longer do that.   When they troubled to write back and even spelled your name correctly,  it tended to make the sender believe that they were being heard and that their input was valued.   These days I find the feedback to elected officials thing kind of dull because it's like shouting into a vacuum.   I have to wonder if the politicians finally decided their constituents were simply spammers.

I have to give Adriel props for creating a unique petition that seems to have quite successfully gotten the attention of a busy, social media savvy executive.   But I would caution him to be very careful about creating anything that might be regarded as spam,  which is a kiss of death kind of label to many of us.   And I would tell Dups that as annoying as spam from customers can be,  the best way to deal with it is to address the issue the spammers are raising loudly and publicly.    That's the most efficient way to stop a growing group from turning into a stampeding crowd.

What's your take?  Who are the spammers in this post?  Is spam ever justified?


Dups said...

Hi, thanks for the post, I do appreciate it. I'll tell you some of my take away from what happened.

1) Had someone sent me a message to say "Hi, if you wish to acknowledge this, then the duplicate messages will stop" I would have gone there, this was not communicated to me :) or if it had it was drowned out (a problem with waking up to this ;)

2) I never called the people "spammers"... more to stop "spam" in my personal account, spam is the identical message over and over again as you acknowledge. Personally targeting someone is just not a good thing to do. Had someone done it to the @empireave company account that's fine.

3) If you wanted to collect the tweets, I'd even be happy to create a twitter account for it!

The assumption is that a petition is to make us do something we don't want to do. But that's not the case in this situation as I acknowledged, have acknowledged and we continue to work very hard to overcome.

Also I did not like the posting "@PetLvr I think the idea is like a Twitter bomb...@dups will get a ton of tweets, hopefully persuading him"

The idea of a twitter bomb basically means that you will have made my account unuseable. How does that affect my communication with you all? Everyone likes the fact that I am open, this might have persuaded me that perhaps people didn't want my openness (which I know is not the case)

Now having said that, and if you read the above you will get that, I *appreciated* the passion and the *intent* behind what was done, just not against my personal account ;)

I would say this is philosophically an issue with any business and any person working in a business. You all cannot see inside what's going on, everyone has an opinion and we try to meet that expectations. Let's say 100 people from 1000 people came to my house and yelled at me, does that mean I should change something to satisfy 100 people as opposed to 900 people who might oppose it? I don't think that's very fair and I'm sure you don't either. I have seen businesses (and been part of businesses) that have failed due to following decisions that weren't analyzed against what everyone wanted/needed, it is not my wish for Empire Avenue to fail.

I am an extremely open person and very open to speaking my mind, as you can see, there is no PR filter for me to respond to any post, negative or positive. However, I do represent a company and we as a company have to decide and work together as a team. Also, as I note, we are open to listening to what the community wants and are always open to change as long as it fits with the long term vision of the company, the product and indeed the majority of a community.

So the question you should ask is, "what is the best way to get your voice heard". We live in a cynical society. Many people's assumption is that you send in a request to a company then if we don't act on it, it's ignored, discarded etc. That's unfortunate. We also live in an impatient society, you want a feature in "right now" (not saying you anyone did. With Empire Avenue, I humbly beg and ask people to submit their thoughts through the feedback link, discuss it on blogs openly and publicly, communities and send us a link, we don't mind, in fact we will engage with you as long as people are polite and respectful.

Ultimately, my belief is personally that everyone, *EVERYONE* is at the same level as another in importance. Whether you have been on the site 100 days or 100 hours. We are a small team, 5 core people taking on the workload and a complexity that is incredible and we will get there with your help, suggestions and understanding!

All this is not the opinion of all Empire Avenue staff, just me :) @dups

Thanks again, and I hope you get an insight both into me personally and how we work at Empire Avenue


Holly Jahangiri said...

Oh, dear. Dups, I had no idea that "petition" was also "spamming" you! Good gravy. I signed it (as I think most of the Facebook open groups interaction is less "spammy" than, say, oh, someone autoposting and crosslinking between their posterous and their blogs and facebook and SERIOUSLY DUPS, wasn't my "Mea culpa I'm still learning how to use Posterous" ENOUGH for you to reconsider refusing to upgrade my feed as a mobile photo blog? I've unlinked it, man!!) Okay, sorry that was off topic. ;) Anyway, for my part in the deluge (assuming that since I signed the thing, I did play a part), I'm sorry.

On a more general note, Alan, regarding your post... I agree that one should not give in to bullying from customers, IF the company is actually taking steps to satisfy the customer. Sometimes, such actions as you describe are just an opportunity to turn a bad PR situation into a good one - meaning you've obviously got a frustrated and angry customer who MIGHT be persuaded to become a loyal, happy, advocate who will tout your product if you make him feel HEARD. You don't even have to do what he asks (assuming he's a reasonable human being), but don't let him feel angry and ignored. THAT is when his little ploy turns into a bomb.

I know of at least one customer who was so distraught over perceived lack of concern and interest from customer support that she fired a gun (into her own ceiling, thank goodness, not her head) and dropped the phone.

Last anyone heard, she was being taken to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation and the ceiling was expected to survive. But it should serve as a reminder that we are dealing with human beings, not just automated processes and procedures. Human beings do NOT like being treated like a number.

Libdrone said...


Thank you very much for leaving such a thoughtful, detailed reply. I really appreciate that. Your response reminds me how very important it can be to speak precisely. I appreciate your distinction between complaining about spam and calling someone a spammer.

I want to point out again, that it was not me but Adriel Hampton who created the petition and designed it so that people re-tweeted to you. So I am really not in a position to address the idea of whether it might have been better to set up a special Twitter account for this "petition".

That said, I don't think that a petition is intended to make the target "do something we don't want to do". I thought it was simply to make the target aware that the petitioners had this concern and desired this change.

Dups, I do appreciate how challenging it can be to deal with a community of people with lots of big ideas, particularly while trying to develop and run a very complex business. I want to be sure you know that I have a great deal of admiration for you and the Empire Avenue team.


Your first paragraph seems to really reinforce my theme that almost no one ever considers themself a spammer ;) I don't think I'm any closer than when I began to nailing down exactly what spam is and exactly who spammers are. But I'm most pleased at this bit of discussion it has stirred up.