Searching for a Definition of Spam

The first step in dealing with the spam problem is finding a definition that makes sense. It’s a process already started by lawmakers, and their effort is probably the only way the final definition will ever be truly standardized.

However, so legislators don’t proceed in a vacuum, I’d like to take a stab at developing a definition that is fair to everyone. If you’ll send me your comments, I’ll discuss them in another article and send our final definition to Congress.

To do this objectively, I suggest we start afresh by looking at how email is received, opened, and read, rather than beginning with any current industry definition. Let’s start by sorting a typical day’s stack of emails into actionable categories:

  • Known-sender personal emails. These are emails from your business associates, family, and friends. None of them should ever be labeled spam. (But as you’ll soon see, this is the only clear-cut case we have.)

  • Unknown-sender personal emails. These are emails from one unknown person to another, which some people consider spam and others don’t.

    For example, a business development officer sends a polite, short message to a prospect whose email address appears on a Web site, with valid arguments about a product or service that probably would interest the recipient. It’s definitely unsolicited, but there aren’t many recipients who are going to get uptight about it. After all, it has nothing to do with body-part enlargement or Nigeria, so what’s the harm, right?

    That same biz dev guy sends that same message to 100 different recipients. He personalizes each message, but it’s still a form letter. The emails are appropriate because they are carefully targeted, but they’re still unsolicited. Is it spam or just good business prospecting? What about 10,000 different recipients? Does the quantity even matter?

    I think most would agree these cases are fairly benign because the messages appear to be appropriate and might have value for the recipient. (We’ll talk more about the word “appropriate” later, because it’s crucial to the definition of spam.) OK, back to more specific categories.

  • Newsletter-publisher emails. It could be a technical e-zine or a joke compendium, but if I sign up for it, I want to receive it. I don’t want it treated as spam no matter what words it contains. Suppose today’s joke is a satire of the word “free.” Should that be blocked? Hell no! Some other scenarios:
    • Suppose the subscription is a single opt-in. If I check the box, I want the newsletter.

    • Suppose it’s double opt-in, requiring me to confirm. From my perspective as a recipient, it’s the same as single opt-in.
    • What if my buddy opts me in to a newsletter because he thinks I’ll enjoy it? I may thank him or lecture him, and I may unsubscribe, but I’m certainly not going to send out a spam cop complaint.
    • What if my enemy signs me up for 100 newsletters I don’t want? That’s something else entirely.

  • Retailer-to-customer emails. These are email communications from retailers, such as Barnes & Noble and Nordstrom. I may have signed up at for announcements of new books by my favorite authors; you may have signed up at for news on new fashions by your favorite designer. Should these emails be blocked? I don’t think so.

    What if decides that, because you specified an interest in John Grisham, you should also receive emails about books by an author of the same genre? What if Nordstrom takes the liberty of telling you about shoes as well as clothing, or the next general sales event? What if it sends you an application for a Nordstrom credit card?

  • Opt-out emails. These are newsletters and emails from retailers and others that are the result of an opt-out rather than opt-in. Suppose I order from a retailer and don’t even see the opt-out box. Suddenly I start getting emails I didn’t sign up for. I might appreciate them or not.
  • Email alerts. These are notices sent at your request for updates on news, stocks, sports, and so on. What if those alerts carry advertising messages? Does the presence of ads make them spam?

I could name another hundred cases in which there are more questions than answers. In doing this exercise, it became clear to me (and I hope to you) that no matter how impossible it seems, we need to find a definition that fits all these diverse situations.

Then suddenly, in the middle of my slumber the other night, the only possible definition came to me: Spam is an email message that the recipient — and only the recipient — deems inappropriate, unwanted, or no longer wanted for any reason.

The key words are “inappropriate,” “unwanted,” and “no longer wanted.” Those words cover every case I can think of.

And here’s another epiphany: The words used in the email message are irrelevant!

Who cares whether an email uses “blacklisted” words such as “free,” “offer,” and “limited time”? Individual words don’t determine if a message is appropriate, unwanted, or no longer wanted — the full content does!

To illustrate my point, here are two subject lines for home mortgages:

  • Low home mortgage rates — refinance now and save!

  • Save a &#(&#^^&$# bundle on your next mortgage — pick up the phone now!

If you’re not in the market for a mortgage, both emails are inappropriate and unwanted.

But if you are in the market for a mortgage, you may prefer one to the other. I can guarantee some people will appreciate — and respond to — each. That’s why I say the words in the message are irrelevant. And when you have finalized your mortgage, you’ll undoubtedly reclassify all mortgage emails as “no longer wanted.”

If it’s appropriate and wanted, it ain’t spam as far as I’m concerned. Which leads me to my next profound statement: The only person who can determine if email is appropriate is the recipient. Not the ISP. Not the corporate IT director. The recipient.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to embrace Email Power to the People, because only the people know what’s appropriate for them.

And because people often forget where they signed up for something, the key is to give them a valid, real way to unsubscribe. In the same way there are rules and regulations governing postal mail (people who mail Hustler magazines play by the same rules as those who mail Eddie Bauer catalogs), the law should enable spammers to be prosecuted as spammers for only the following reasons:

  • There is no obvious electronic way to unsubscribe.

  • There is a way to unsubscribe, but it doesn’t work.
  • The emailer ignores the unsubscribe request and continues to send the same email or variations of it.
  • The emailer violates existing laws.

This kind of legislation, coupled with giving people power to block and filter what they wish makes all the sense in the world. Spammers who ignore unsubscribe requests and continue to abuse people will be caught and prosecuted, and legitimate emailers who respect what people want will not.

Here’s that definition one more time: Spam is an email message that the recipient — and only the recipient — deems inappropriate, unwanted, or no longer wanted for any reason. Do you agree?

Please join us at ClickZ Email Strategies in San Francisco, November 18-19.

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