Spam as Tragedy

E-mail is on the cusp of crisis. Unclogging email servers is now an IT-budget-cost item for businesses. For consumers, occasional netiquette violation by an unscrupulous few has turned into a daily assault from hundreds of bulk emailers. Spam now exceeds 40 percent of all email traffic according to one anti-spam company. Spam verges on creating a “tragedy of the commons,” a situation in which the overuse of a shared resource by a few ruins that resource for all.

Garret Hardin’s classic 1968 explication of this economic principle goes like this:

Picture a pasture open to all…. As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of grazing one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1. The positive component is the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2. The negative component is… the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular herdsman is only a fraction of -1….

The rational herdsman concludes that the only rational course for him to pursue is to add another animal…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman. Therein is the tragedy. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

When a resource costs nothing to use, usage goes unchecked. With email, miniscule cost increase pays for a massive increase in volume. With no penalty for shameless, wasteful inefficiency, spam has spread like wildfire.

What does spam threaten to ruin, exactly? What’s the shared resource? The cyberspace commons? Is it anything more than the right to send unsolicited bulk mail, only more temperately? It’s that, and more. What’s at risk are the culture, norms, and treatment online users expect.

Many businesses are working to shape productive, meaningful relationships with customers and prospects, using the Internet — among other channels. Spam taints overtures toward intimacy. Solutions make things worse. Spam filters, separate email accounts for junk, anonymizers, and other, more advanced solutions discussed at last week’s conference in Cambridge, MA, are defensive weapons in an info-tech arms race.

Spam’s chilling effect is the user’s unwillingness to be visible: to post messages to newsgroups, respond to surveys, subscribe to mailing lists. Surrendering an email address results in a deluge of junk.

Beneath the problem and its solutions lies a dispiriting view: Cyberspace is hostile terrain. The Web is adversarial. An email address is vulnerable to being captured, targeted, and penetrated. Many enterprises finally understand trust is a necessary condition for revelatory customer data. They finally want to listen to power users, product enthusiasts, early adopters, and average customers to co-evolve with them. Spam’s nasty culture and its solutions push consumers to adopt new tools and behaviors, the primary purpose being self-concealment.

Another lesson gleaned from spam, pop-ups, and other online irritants is consumers have tools to block, strip out, and substitute ads packaged with their content. The same threat is posed by personal video recorders (PVRs) such as TiVo. PlanetFeedback CMO Pete Blackshaw suggests the online and offline worlds reinforce each other. It’s socially acceptable, indeed routine, to block ads.

An adversarial assumption is not a necessity. Revitalized interests in do-not-call lists for the voice channel, suppression lists for direct mail, and many opt-in/-out versions of online permission marketing can be productively reframed as opportunities for companies and consumers to negotiate the exchange of commercial messaging and consumer attention. Unfortunately, the current climate’s chilling effect makes customer-guided marketing communications difficult even to imagine.

Spam and its solutions present a double-barreled disaster to the culture of commercial communications. It teaches consumers to conceal themselves and block us out.

What’s being done?

Technical solutions at the end-user level will continue to evolve, but they accommodate the problem rather than solve it. Legislative approaches require such tasks as monitoring, disclosing, enforcement, and other necessary evils of governance. Economic engineering (increasing the cost) would make bulk email more like direct. You don’t need a wheelbarrow to carry your snail mail, despite grousing about junk and huge room for improvement. If effective marketplace mechanisms cannot be devised, taxing bulk emailers into economic efficiency and social respectability is worth considering. Mutually agreed upon coercion is one legitimate way for the many to ensure that their interest in protecting a shared resource prevails over the rights of a few to despoil it.

While we curb despoilers and secure our own commercial freedoms, we must make it our business to exercise those freedoms to create an online commons worth protecting. We all share at least one common purpose: to secure a terrain where innovations and ambitions in information exchange between companies and consumers can be productively pursued. If we don’t properly cultivate our commons, spammers will deservedly prevail.

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