2005 Pew Report on Spam

Pew has released its annual survey on recipient attitudes towards spam. The 2005 version shows that recipients are becoming adjusted to the spam influx. As the report says, recipients are “minding it less” and that the “worst case scenario—that spam will seriously degrade or even destroy email—is not happening.” The report speculates that “the findings from almost one year ago might have represented a spike or a high point, rather than a growing negative trend of the impact of spam on the internet experience.”

This evolving attitude towards spam was entirely predictable. For example, in 2003, I wrote: “We have had many years to develop ways to cope with ads in other media, but we are still developing ways to cope with email ads. It seems likely that users will improve their ability to manage email with more experience, at which point user frustration should decrease.” I remain convinced that people will develop organic methods to cope with spam, with or without regulatory intervention, and I predict that the 2006 Pew report will show that spam is even less annoying to recipients than it is today. We have passed through the high water mark, and it’s downhill from here.

I’m so confident of this because the adjustment process occurs with every new marketing medium. A new marketing medium develops, marketers abuse the medium, consumers and technologists develop coping strategies, and an equilibrium is established. This has happened with spam, this will happen with pop-up ads, this will happen with spim, spit and every other spam-variation we can imagine. The process is infinitely repeatable and entirely predictable.

The question is—will the regulators let this evolution take place naturally, or will they find it too irresistible to grandstand to their constituents that they are tough on bad marketing practices? We know the answer, as CAN-SPAM illustrated all too well.

However, I also point the finger at the pollsters and commentators, like Pew, who delight in issuing hyperbolic press releases and reports containing rather inflammatory language (despite the purported objectivity of the report-writers). In my mind, the Pew reports from 2003 and 2004 played no small role in whipping up the anti-spam frenzy, a legacy that we must now live with.