10 ways spam taught us to focus our attention

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You’ve just read the very first spam message. Sent by Carl Gartley on behalf of Gary Thuerk, this message went to several hundred ARPANET members on May 3, 1978. The message violated the until-then standard practice of e-mailing people individually (ah, those were the days!) and annoyed a whole lot of ARPANET users. It also sold some computers. And thus, the era of spam marketing was born.

It’s customary to curse the name of Thuerk, though Thuerk himself uses fatherespam as his LinkedIn profile URL, and prominently cites his role in creating spam as a professional credential. (Guess he decided to embrace it sometime after this interview.) But I think that Gary Thuerk is owed more than a sarcastic thank you.

After all, spam — now estimated at more than 75% of e-mail traffic — has been one of the major drivers of online innovation. To cope with “Pandora’s Inbox”, we’ve had to develop attention and information-management systems that prove crucial for surviving today’s communications-rich environment.

Spam is the vaccine for your attention span. It’s the toxin that has stimulated our immunity system’s defenses. Thanks to spam, we’ve had to find technical, social and personal ways of keeping our eyes on the 22% of e-mail that isn’t pure junk, and to avoid the 78% that is.

Those tools and tactics turn out to serve us very well in the era of social media. Now that people generate content and communications in ways that go well beyond e-mail, we need to focus in ways that go far beyond a spam filter. We can thank Gary Thuerk and the spammers of the universe for helping us develop the following ways to focus our attention:

  1. Email filtering: Email filters, which were first created to deal with spam, have since turned into powerful tools for managing and organizing incoming email. I’m utterly dependent on Gmail filters in ways that go way beyond spam elimination. Without spam I might have to read and file my e-mails by hand (shudder).
  2. Attention filtering: Email filters have inspired analogous tools on other platforms. Twitter lists, the Facebook “hide” option and the entire idea of PATH are all about filtering out extraneous content so we can focus our attention on a more limited circle of relationships or a more limited sphere of information.
  3. Texting and messaging: Spam made us impatient about the process of plowing through our inboxes. Texting, chat and Twitter are all instant communications tools that sidestep the whole inbox nightmare by coming to us in real time. (And better yet, by being incredibly short.) Learning to communicate in very brief increments is one of the legacies of spam, and in a world that connects us to hundreds or thousands of people through a wide range of social networks, we can be grateful that some of those conversations happen briefly.
  4. Pull: Email did a fantastic job of teaching us about the limits of push: content that gets pushed to you. As a result many of us have shifted much of our attention onto pull: content that we pull to us by choosing what to visit or subscribe to. For instance, instead of subscribing to e-newsletters, we might subscribe to blog RSS feeds. While e-newsletters are still alive and well, the shift to pull is an essential tool for people trying to manage a very high volume of information.
  5. FOAF: The friend-of-a-friend principle has driven a wide range of social networks in which your interactions are structured around networks of trusted contacts. Relying on networks of trust is a way of getting past the spam problem, by opening communication channels only along lines that mirror pre-existing social relationships. Just think about LinkedIn, which explicitly limits your ability to contact people based on how closely you are connected. That whole model of using social networks to construct boundaries around who gets our attention is in some part thanks to the problem of ungated attention first demonstrated by spam.
  6. Marketing with value: Spam’s assault on e-mail delivery and opening rates first forced marketers to think about what they could actually offer to make an e-mail worth reading. That consciousness and skill set has served marketers well in the social media era, where the competition for attention is even fiercer. If some online marketing now delivers real value to its targets — think the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty or Dell’s Ideastorm — that’s because marketers have learned that providing tangible value is one way to earn people’s attention.
  7. Opt in, opt out: To address the spam problem, many countries have laws that require all bulk e-mails to include an opt-out link, and/or to be sent only by people who have explicitly opted into the mailing list. (Of course, these laws are ignored by all kinds of illegitimate operations, which is why spam volumes remain so high.) This has given us the idea that you don’t demand the attention of someone who hasn’t asked for your content, and that losing someone’s attention is a routine and acceptable part of our communications ecosystem. You can see that principle extended into technologies and practices like the ever-evolving policies on what appears in your Facebook news feed, and the ease of unfollowing people on Twitter.
  8. Ignoring communications: Spam taught us that it was OK to ignore a lot of e-mail. We still have a ways to go in overcoming our notion that all e-mail deserves a reply, but to the extent that we’re asserting some sense of agency over how we allocate our attention, it builds on the foundations established by spam. Once you learn how to ignore offers from Nigerian princes, it gets a lot easier to ignore irrelevant office-wide memos.
  9. Getting rich quick: In a world that delivers daily messages about how you can get rich quick, it’s understandable that we’d lose our patience for long, slow empire-building. Maybe it’s overreaching to blame (or credit) spam for a generation of social media sites built on the business model of, “let’s build something that we can get Yahoo! or Google to buy.” But some of the startups that found their quick return through early acquisition have included some great tools for managing our information and communications (hello, delicious and Radian6).
  10. Penis talk: If we weren’t so constantly deluged by spam ads promoting Viagra, Cialis and penis enlargement, we might think that the size and engorgement of one’s genitalia were strictly personal matters. Thanks to spam, we now know how much people like to think and talk about penises, information that has helped to drive some of the Internet’s most successful entertainment sites. Imagine if we’d wasted all that attention on lady parts instead!
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