I am an e-mail junkie. I have several different accounts, a routine of checking for new messages that borders on obsessive-compulsive, and the infuriating (especially for travelling companions) habit of seeking out Internet cafés while on vacation to root through my in box. I love the (almost) instant communication that e-mail offers, the ability to send a few random thoughts that wouldn't merit a phone call, to forward interesting bits of information and maybe convince millions of people around the world to speak like a pirate (as one intrepid e-mailer did last week).
Spam has long been one of the downfalls of e-mail. It's annoying, but until recently it has also been manageable. Fancy, expensive filters and deleting with extreme prejudice have kept the trash down, but I'm beginning to feel a bit beaten up.
Last week, a British e-mail filtering company estimated that more than 50 per cent of all e-mail traffic is spam (unsolicited messages). Last week, European governments also began renewed debates about fining senders of spam as much as $8,000, although mail sent to company and corporate addresses would be exempt. Similar debates are swirling around governments on this side of the Atlantic.
Over the past few weeks, I've been tracking the e-mail I get at my email@example.com address. One of the implications of having an e-mail address published in a newspaper and on the Internet is that you're automatically added to junk mail lists. Write about e-mail and your coordinates seem to go even wider.
The spam is overwhelming, but the implications are even more depressing.
On average, I get 80 to 90 messages a day. Thirty or so are from various kings, princes and deposed and vengeful financial advisers in Africa. Twenty or 30 more offer bigger breasts, longer appendages, the secret to happiness, cheaper gas and (ha ha) less spam.
These are easy enough to get rid of en masse. Trickier and more annoying are the mysterious messages that look like legitimate correspondence, often sent through viruses from familiar or friendly-sounding addresses. Get 10 to 20 of these a day and suddenly most of the messages you're receiving are junk. Sound familiar?
What it's meant is that people have to dedicate countless hours to separating the good from the garbage. Admittedly, there are worse things than sorting through e-mail, but when it's every few minutes, it can become distracting as well as infuriating.
Even more annoying is that legit e-mails can get buried in the junk. Faced with an onslaught of spam, I've been tempted (just tempted?) to delete the whole lot and miss out on messages that might actually be worth reading.
As a result, senders have had to become very specific in the subject header. No more empty subjects, uses of re: or flippant comments. Now, the most effective e-mails practically give the message away in the subject line to ensure you'll read it.
In many ways, it's our last line of defence. Filtering only means that spammers will spell out f-u-c-k, and the Web is no place for lawsuits. (Ask the music industry about the negative press that comes from suing.)
Spend hours cutting through the crap or risk losing the freedom that e-mail was invented for in the first place. It's a tough call.