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?