Monday, November 24

so spam is normal behavior, but what if you stopped?

I have this thought for people working at several kinds of entity, including (but probably not limited to) retailers on the web and nonprofits who accept donations from the public at large.

Basically, it goes like this:

  1. Do you actually need your customers' e-mail / mailing addresses?
  2. If so, what for?
  3. So what if you consciously prevented yourself from being tempted to the kinds of action that having cheaply-used contact information encourages in the long term?

While I don’t have a great sense of the history here, I think it’s probably safe to say that mail-order businesses, publications, and charities have aggressively maintained lists of contact information for customers, subscribers, and donors for a very long time.

It’s certainly clear that this behavior has, in the age of databases and super-cheap networked communications, escalated and ramified in all sorts of ways. If you conduct a transaction of any kind with an e-commerce site or a charity, you can pretty well expect to get increasing quantities of e-mail (and maybe phone calls or paper envelopes full of guilt) from now until the heat death of the universe.

The incentives here are obvious enough: If you’ve spent money once, you’re almost definitionally the sort of person who might spend money again on the same thing. And if you’ve spent money once, you’ve probably handed over contact information of some kind as a basic element of the transaction. It shouldn’t be surprising that people looking to make money will look to make more of it from you, and, seeing as how they already got you on the hook once, have a reasonable expectation that maybe they can get you on the hook again.

What is spam?

Maybe spam is the hundredth time I see a thing I wouldn’t have minded seeing once.

Maybe spam is that which, when it appears in my inbox, I am immediately aware that I have not consented to seeing.

Maybe spam is an ad pretending to be something I should care about.

Maybe spam is that special form of theft which hijacks the superficial forms of communication to grind profit out of fractions of stolen cognitive bandwidth.

Here’s what spam is: If you’re trying to convince me you didn’t just spam someone, you just spammed someone.

So what is this experience like for customers, donors, and subscribers?

My feeling is that it’s kind of a shit sandwich. It’s cool if you want that kind of thing in your inbox, I guess (although you and I will probably never fully understand one another). And I get why so many people are so very good at tuning it out — it’s not like you’re given much of an option in civilization as it actually exists.

For people like me — people who are not actually very good at tuning out a lot of stimuli — it’s kind of painful. It’s like having your friends and relatives replaced by hundreds of televisions showing endless loops of some reality TV marathon.

No, that’s a bad analogy.

What it’s like is having all of the ways you communicate with your friends and relatives turn into the endless drone of the kind of communication exemplified by reality television, because that’s literally what is happening. None of the media with mass acceptance and big infrastructure are resistant to this mode of anti-communication, especially in an age when mass media are increasingly founded on the continuous delivery of spam.

It’s infinitely more costly, in raw cognitive and temporal terms, to stem the tide of this endless technicolor vomit than it is to be one incremental producer of the technicolor vomit itself. It costs a single human working at a single corporation about as much time to take a few seconds away from half a million people as it might take for any one of those people to block the stream of pseudocommunication. And there are literally millions of institutions with strong perceived incentives to create streams of pseudocommunication.

Assuming you’re not one of them, have you ever thought about what this does to the people who make it happen for a living? The people who lay down the mandates, and the people who grind out the pseudocontent, and the nerds living down on the wire who build the machinery and monger the data and manipulate the charts full of RoI and KPIs?

Let me tell you this: It’s not a real dignity-building exercise of craft.

So I got to thinking: In real concrete terms, what if you were an e-commerce site or a charity, and you had a policy, built out in software, of never storing contact info longer than needed for a given transaction?

I guess this could mean things like:

  • If you want to enable people logging in via e-mails, you hash e-mail addresses the same way you hash passwords. (And you think hard about what it would take someone to reverse the list by checking a known list of e-mails.)
  • You invent better password-recovery mechanisms than sending an e-mail.
  • Those of you working in currently well-behaved institutions scrub contact info for customers / donors / orders / donations older than six months, in anticipation of institutional corruption towards the spamming impulse.
  • You find a way to proxy communication to some reliable third party whose function is to hold contact info in escrow (revocable by you or the customer) until the transaction is complete.

Maybe only the last thing on that list hints at what really has to happen: The engineering of messaging systems where, unlike the mail model, knowing my address isn’t the same thing as being able to send me a message.

I’m not sure where to draw the lines, though. Spam may be a cultural problem, but if so, then it’s a cultural problem that can only exist in a huge matrix of engineering decisions. I don’t think I know how to engineer against it, but I do have to wonder if that’s not one place we should start. Spam is a failure mode, and good engineering depends on the awareness of failure modes.

I am pretty sure that this matters. It’d be fair to ask why I think that. I guess my short answer is that it seems to me like we all suffer when self-reinforcing noise soaks up the bandwidth; when filtering deceptive inputs overwhelms the limited space available for learning facts and making useful decisions and having emotional experiences that map well to reality.

A constant sense of vague irritation is not a very good replacement for situational awareness. The dull, shouty, repetition-rotten hum of commerce in every channel is not much of a soundtrack.

Spam as default modality is bad for our politics, our artistic life, and our sense of the people around us. I’m not even particularly convinced it’s great for business, or at least not for business as a thing you’d much want to participate in.