by Esther Schindler

The changing definition of “spam”

Feb 23, 20075 mins
Data Center

Once, we knew the word meant. Spam was unsolicited commercial email, usually (though not necessarily) advertising unwanted products or services that were probably part of a scam. But the word’s meaning has changed, and I find that a little bit troubling.

For example, on one of the technical (and email-related) lists to which I subscribe, a denizen asked, “If I attend a trade show, and pass out a few business cards, is it ‘fair game’ to consider anyone who signs me up for their marketing lists based on that to be a spammer? If so, should I do the ‘polite’ thing and unsubscribe once before letting LARTs fly, or should I simply charge in with guns blazing?”

Now, in regard to the specific issue: Trade shows exist to connect companies with the people who are (at least in general terms) interested in that technology and in those kind of products. You go into the exhibit hall because you have at least a small amount of curiosity about what the vendors offer. It behooves the vendors to motivate you to “connect” with them actively. They may do this by the virtue of their technical excellence (“oooh, they have a TurboGizmo for under $100!”) or, in a more competitive landscape, vendors motivate you with greed or entertainment: let us scan your badge or collect your card, and we’ll [enter you in a contest | give you a t-shirt | let you play with our toys]. By giving them your business card, I believe, you are (implicitly or otherwise) giving them permission to market to you, in at least a modest fashion. You are opting in.

In the “old days,” when I owned a computer store, this meant that I could feel comfortable in entering all those names-and-addresses from the “win a prize” fishbowl into my contact database, and sending those people my company’s monthly newsletter (which was primarily editorial/”how it works” articles rather than marketing… which explains how I became a journalist rather than scion of a computer retail empire). I’m sure that a few people felt they were suddenly getting junk mail, but that newsletter sure generated a lot of computer sales.

In the new age, where you find yourself on someone’s email marketing list (“buy our stuff!”) after attending a trade show, you generally have the option to click on Unsubscribe. Yes, I agree with the people who say that an acceptable (and emotionally preferable) method is to send a “thanks for visiting us; won’t you sign up to get our newsletter?” — but marketing people know that more people will read the unsolicited newsletter than will consciously opt-in. The very clever ones find better ways to communicate besides relentless ask-for-the-sale marketing, but that’s another topic.

Some people, who resent marketing material in any form, point out, “There’s are a number of very good reasons why the canonical definition of spam is unsolicited bulk email, and this illustrates one of them.”

But plenty of stuff is sent by bulk mail (email or postal) that is of interest to the recipient even if they didn’t ask for the precise bit of information. Advertisements for a new woodworking magazine. Individual messages from a discussion forum to which you subscribe (you didn’t “request” each of them individually). Press releases sent to journalists who identify themselves as covering, say, networking issues. A notice from the local city government that water inspectors will be puttering around the sewers in the 85254 zip code, so please don’t worry. And so on.

What I think is interesting is that people are, increasingly, feeling as though they deserve to opt-in to experiences (such as being marketed-to) that we once took for granted. Even if they (by my definition at least) tacitly did so by dropping the card in the win-a-prize fishbowl.

Similarly, I see a (sometimes irritating) tendency for folks to label something as “spam” when they are personally uninterested in it. That has a personal sting for me at the moment, as I posted my usual “Thanks for your help with the article; it’s now live at Getting Clueful: Five Things You Should Know About Fighting Spam” to all the lists where I’d posted a “help a journalist with a fighting-spam article” request. A few people, on two separate lists, called that message “spam” because it wasn’t about the technical details of the specific mail server. I’m as apt as any to be irritated when an off-topic conversation derails the main thrust of an active discussion list (such as “The Sydney Linux group meets this Thursday” sent to 3,000 people worldwide), and perhaps I’d mutter “Stop spamming the list.” But for something to go slightly off-topic into a relevant side issue (I’d have called my “thanks for your help, here’s the URL” note “closure” or “good manners”)–that’s not spam. It might be best-labeled “misc” or “chat” or “off-topic” to warn the community denizens that we aren’t discussing command-line options for this particular mail server, but it’s not spam.

Spam is enough of a plague for the computer industry (and users) to deal with. I hate to see the word used imprecisely or overgeneralized.