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October 1, 2007


I have three email accounts. Two of them used to be nearly perfect about filtering spam -- almost none of it ever showed up in the inbox. Those happy days are gone. But the accounts are still okay, so far, if not perfect. The number of subject lines from spammers I have to see in a given day is rising, to be sure; but spam is not a majority of what appears in their inboxes.

The third account is a disaster.

Mail that I actually need to see constitutes about five percent of what arrives -- on a good day. And it gets worse. Deleting things en masse is not an option. It is necessary to click each item to send it to the trash.

And so for part of each day,my brain is subjected to Dada-like bursts of language, since I have to eyeball each item long enough to know what to delete.

At one level, this is an example of greed's effect on a channel of communication. From that perspective, spam is irritating, but it can be interpreted as economically rational: the cost of sending out the spam is so low that it takes very few resulting purchases to make a profit, etc.

And yet I find myself wondering (in the part of my brain that does not become absorbed in the task of clicking items for deletion) how most of it could be so regarded by even the most broadly defined sense of rationality. How does it ever get a response from anyone, no matter how stupid? It seems as if this phenomenon should collapse at some point from sheer exhaustion of the sucker-reserves available for exploitation.

I even ponder the thought process that culminates in a given piece of spam. How does it happen that someone decides it makes sense to have a subject line such as "Hortense said Ethelbert would love this replica watch"?

How likely is it somebody will see that and (1) happen to know people named Hortense and Ethelbert and (2) make an impulse decision in favor of purchasing a replica watch on that basis?

Posted by smclemee at October 1, 2007 4:45 PM