What is spam?

Accusations of ‘spam’ and ‘spamming’ are often hurled about, covering everything from receiving dozens of emails advertising Viagra through to a journalist complaining about receiving one legitimate press release from a PR person.

So what is spam? The term is derived from the 1970 Monty Python sketch where nearly even food option in a café involves spam – most several times over. That gives a good rough idea of what electronic spam is – content which is unappetising yet is being repeatedly pushed on someone.

These days spam really breaks down into several categories.

First, there is the illegal – where “you’re spamming me” means “you are using contact details for me which you don’t have the legal right to use”.

Second, there are communications that are within the law but where spam means “you’ve tricked me into giving you permission to contact me”, such as when someone fills out a form on a website and doesn’t see the small print saying, “Please make the tick box not blank if you do not wish to be removed from our sharing of data with third parties”. Should you tick or not tick?

Third, there are the cases where the communication is legal – but annoying. That gets back to the example of the journalist, whose inbox is bombarded with hundreds of news releases each week, most of which are barely of interest to them. Their contact details may be public and being legally used – but you’ll find many recipients of such annoying email blizzards call it spam.

Fourthly, there are the cases where an innocent mistake has been made. I once received a complaint from someone saying, “Your email about pavements in North London looked very interesting. But I live in New Zealand and I don’t know why you are sending me such information.” The answer? Their email address was one character different from the email address that should have been on the list, and a small typo had been made on the data entry.

For both this and the first reason, if you are running a database or mailing list, it is particularly sensible to listen carefully to complaints about spam. Not only do they tell you something about whether your messages are interesting and going to a good audience, but sometimes buried in them is information about data or processes going wrong – and which needs fixing.

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