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Email's Not Dead, Neither is Spam

Neil Schwartzman

Over the past few years, we have seen a plethora of over-hyped articles in the popular press and blogosphere crowing wrong-headedly about how 'email is dead'. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter, new and as-yet unproven technologies are the supposed death-knell for our old reliable friend, e-mail.

I wrote about the rumours of email's death being exaggerated back in 2007 in response to such inanity.

Since then, we've seen such a cornucopia of silliness of the 'Such & such is killing email' variety that Mark Brownlow compiled a bunch of articles, and their rebuttals at his excellent site emailisnotdead.com

Email ain't dead folks. Go look at your inbox. As the wags over at BoxOfMeat.com make note, they are becoming "tired of marketers calling their conferences and cliques "email whatever" as if marketing is the only thing email is for".

Just so! The vast majority of the email I receive daily, and I suspect the same for you, is from friends, email discussion lists, transactions from my bank, a few airlines and hotels, various online services I use, alerts about software updates, oh, and emails from social network services like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn reminding me to log in to see messaging that they keep in-house.

Facebook set up personalized domains some months ago for example facebook.com/spamfighter is me. What do you think the logical next step is? Rumour has it that Facebook will be doing email, sooner or later. MySpace already took the plunge http://mashable.com/2009/07/30/myspace-mail/. I promise you, Email is not dead because people want to write directly to one another, using their email accounts, in more than 140-character bursts.

Besides which, your Mom doesn't have a Twitter account. Your boss isn't going to relay an annual job assessment via Facebook. Your bank isn't sending you a statement to your MySpace page anytime soon, if ever. As if!

So what about spam? Is it dead? Some guy at Slate seems to think so: Surprise! We won the war on spam, and the Chicago Tribune slavishly gave him props: The spam plague is over, has anyone noticed?

Really, these people should know better.

The fundamental proof they have for the spam epidemic having run its course is that spam filters work. Well, duh. If they didn't, we would all be seeing about 90 for every one spam that gets into the inbox. That doesn't mean it is over, merely that we are not seeing the vast majority of the spam sent our way. The spam filtering-spam sending war is ever-escalating, and someone has to pay the piper for new technologies and filters. That someone is, you, dear reader, the end user of that wonderful technology, email.

The head of the Canadian Internet Service Providers Association said, some six years ago, that it costs each email user in Canada $5/month for filtering. That was well before things got really bad with great advances made with botnets and other spamming techniques. This is real money out of your pockets folks, and sure, you can opt for a freemail account. Freemail means the service doesn't cost you anything, but someone is paying for it, and that somebody are advertisers. Personally, I like an ad-free environment when I am peacefully reading an email from a friend or relative. I don't need yet another 'targeted' message to add to the already intolerable clutter. I have been 'swooshed' enough, thanks.

The "Spam is dead" crowd cites some legal initiatives, some successful, other not, as a failure of anything but technology to address the spam arms race. Of course, some spammers are going to win in court. That doesn't mean laws are ineffective. Just ask Adam "I owe Facebook $900,000,00" Guerbuez, Sanford "I owe Facebook $700,000,000" Wallace, Scott "I paid MySpace $6,000,000" Richter, and Alan "I face seven years in jail and a $1,000,000 fine" Ralsky.

These all sound like effective actions to me. Of course, a law isn't going to stop spam any more than it does murder. What laws serve to do is keep honest people honest, and allow society to take some punitive actions against those that flout our common mores.

Spam can and must be dealt with in a multi-pronged fashion — no single initiative is going to kill it off: User education, legal initiatives, spam filtering, the adoption of best common practices by legitimate mailers, cross-jurisdictional cooperation, all of the stuff that we agreed to in the ground-breaking Task Force on Spam, back in 2004 StopSpamHere.ca

Maybe this will have you scurrying to the supposedly safe confines of Facebook or Twitter? Then again, maybe you've noticed that the bad guys are spending an awful lot of time money and resources targeting these two platforms of late? If not, you should. A colleague of mine has had her twitter account hacked three times in as many weeks — and now, it turns out that Koobface, an infamous piece of Facebook malware, may have come to Twitter, too: Twitter spam worm stealing user logons

Read more about it here: Facebook, MySpace, and crossdomain.xml and here: Massive Facebook And MySpace Flash Vulnerability Exposes User Data

Then, there are the fun games you can play on Facebook. Whoops, maybe not so good. Check out the Tech Crunch series about the CEO of the company behind Mafia Wars and Farmville, who laughs about his scamming innocent users like you out of the personal information, which he resells to marketers.

And, of course, former email spammer Scott Richter is now happily publishing Facebook apps from his new company, Lunatic Games at facebook.com/LunaticGames

As the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I think you'd have to be a lunatic to play one of those games. Did we mention that Scott's other company is affiliates.com? Now, what do you think he is doing with the information he gathers from game-playing Facebook users?

Spam ain't dead folks. It just got itself a Facebook account, and tweets too.

By Neil Schwartzman, Executive Director, The Coalition Against unsolicited Commercial Email - CAUCE. More blog posts from Neil Schwartzman can also be read here.

Related topics: Cybercrime, Cybersecurity, Email, Law, Malware, Spam

 
   

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Comments

Brain dead? Alex Tajirian  –  Nov 13, 2009 11:15 AM PDT

Besides which, your Mom doesn't have a Twitter account. Your boss isn't going to relay an annual job assessment via Facebook. Your bank isn't sending you a statement to your MySpace page anytime soon, if ever.

Thus, maybe we need a multi-platform email.  Email from my Mom would go to my Twitter (or Facebook), from my boss would go to my Facebook (or Twitter), etc. And vice versa.

Email maybe brain dead, but not dead?

Not brain dead Jeff Fishburn  –  Nov 13, 2009 5:42 PM PDT

"Thus, maybe we need a multi-platform email."

Multimodal communications, basically the idea that any type of communications (visual, audio, text...) take place across any delivery mechanism/platform. Some of the asynchronous communications technologies coming out like Pixetell would be ideal for the visual nature of business communications today.

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