The new year is upon us, and if you’ve been buried amidst mounds of wrapping paper, stuffed turkeys and egg-nog, it’s likely that you’ve welcomed the sense of normalcy that comes with the end of the holidays. But normalcy usually means returning to all the things we don’t particularly relish doing, like getting up for work, paying bills, and fighting with our inboxes for dominance over our digital lives. It’s 2013 now, and the Mayan Apocalypse passed without so much as a sneeze out of the gods of the Yucatan Peninsula, but it’s a safe bet that some of you wish the prophecies had been true as the rush of spam email comes at you once again in a fast and furious fashion. Baby New Year hasn’t even had a chance to spit up on our shoulders, and already the feverish wave of after-holiday sales are clogging our email clients and giving them new reasons to be pissed off at the application developers who wrote them.
A Brief History of Spam, or Douchebags are People, Too
Spam email has its beginnings in the original days of Hotmail (i.e., before Microsoft bought them), when the masses were given an opportunity, for the first time, to try out this newfangled thingy called email. With the sudden rash of free email users, it wasn’t long before they made their way onto the scene –chain letters, fake marketing pitches from someone calling himself Bill Gates, and heartfelt pleas from Nigerian princes. At first a nuisance – except to those who bought into the Nigerian 419 scams – spam was largely just that: a nuisance. It wasn’t long, however, until hackers found a way to incorporate binary attachments into their poison pen letters, and the sick, twisted little dance between spammers and email users began in earnest.
And for many years, that’s exactly what the landscape looked like. Cheesy implorations that anyone with an IQ slightly north of a hammer’s would never fall for, dangerous little pockets of malware that could be devastating if errantly activated, and sales pitches, more confusing than anything else because they made absolutely no sense. But the paradigm’s changed in the past few years. Phishing became a malevolent yet effective tool for parting a fool from his money, and scams have become more intelligent and more targeted. Somewhere along the way, the douchebag spammers got smart. Fortunately, spam filters got smarter, too, and the ongoing waltz continues as a cat-and-mouse game to see who can adapt quicker.
But Wait! There’s More
If the scenario above is the status quo, then ‘legitimate’ marketers have managed to douse the dance floor with Teflon. Spammers haven’t changed. They want your money and they’ll break any law they can to get it. Users continue to fight the good fight, through vigilance, strong anti-spam algorithms, and more than a little bit of patience. But marketers – the people who don’t hide in the light of day because they actually do have something to sell you – have gotten far more aggressive. Between the early 1990’s and 2013, somewhere along the way, the definition of email spam has changed.
Users really don’t care who sent the email. If it’s unwanted, then it’s spam. In 2013, that invariably means marketers, who aren’t new to the time-honored art of bothering people, are the new villains. If you don’t believe it, then go ahead and Google it. There are industry associations out there which exist for the sole purpose of helping anyone who has something to sell. They work hard to figure out how to get their messages past the spam filters and into your inbox. Not to besmirch those associations, there are plenty of people who want to know when their favorite tchotchkes go on sale. But as the world has gone digital in the past twenty or so years, a critical mass has been reached, and now even the most unnecessary items have become worthy of an email or ten.
Where Does it Stop?
Christmas creep has gotten worse, and if you’re anything like this writer, you’ve probably rolled your eyes a few times at the ridiculous number of sales this time of the year. Boxing Day sales. After Christmas sales. New Year’s sales. After the holidays sales. And so-on.
Consumers have had enough. And that’s troubling for everyone, because the spammers won’t stop. Email marketing is relatively free, certainly far cheaper than paying for TV, radio, direct mailers, and other methods that marketers have traditionally used. In 2013, there is a new enemy on the battlefield, and all he’s managed to do is make the field far more treacherous for everyone involved.