"Try Viagra4Free." "Get up to $35,000 Overnight! BAD or NO CREDIT OK!" "Lose 46 Pound Belly Fat Using BASIC Math!"

If you've been on the receiving end of email messages like this, you'd be justified in wondering, “How many people actually respond to these solicitations?”  

According to one study, spammers turn a profit if only one in 25,000 responds. And there's no issue of scale: it costs the same to send 100 million messages as it costs to send 100 — nothing. So it’s no wonder Nigerian princes and quick paths to wealth and health still flood our inboxes. 

The High Cost of SPAM 

Yahoo! researchers provided some insight into the problem in the 2012 The Economics of SPAM study. The study found that in 2010, spammers sent 90 billion email messages every day and approximately 1.2 percent of those messages reached user inboxes. 

The researchers’ analysis put the cost of lost productivity due to SPAM at $14 billion, attributed mostly to time that workers wasted clearing their inboxes. Adding in additional outlays to organizations on SPAM filters, added storage and network bandwidth brings the overall cost of dealing with SPAM in the $20 billion ballpark.  

Any way you slice it, SPAM costs a boatload of money in lost time, storage and bandwidth. 

Those numbers appear to be much higher today. According to Cisco, unsolicited mail now accounts for 86 percent of the world's email traffic, with about 400 billion messages sent each day.  

SPAM is nothing new. The first SPAM message on record was sent in 1978, when a marketer at Digital Equipment Corporation blasted out an unsolicited message advertising a new computer to 400 people on the ARPANET (the precursor to the internet). Over the years, the level of SPAM gradually increased, and eventually, when it got out of control, Congress intervened.

Legislate SPAM Out of Existence?

In 2003, Congress passed the CAN-SPAM Act which placed limits on what an email marketer can and can’t do. Some of the requirements included supplying a valid return address, offering an opt-out option and identifying the message as an advertisement in the subject line. The EUCanada and Australia, among other countries, have subsequently enacted similar legislation. 

But it’s not working.  

A 2014 impact assessment report published in Criminal Justice Policy Review found that the impact of CAN-SPAM, as enacted, has been largely ineffective. Due to the international nature of the internet, SPAM operations can easily move to less regulated countries. Plus, enforcement of the acts has been spotty at best.

If the market is any indication, today’s status quo might represent a sustainable state of affairs. Organizations take it for granted they need to install and maintain SPAM filters as a cost of doing business, with no shortage of SPAM filter providers willing to fill the role. And as these products improve, SPAM's impact should diminish, or at least not get worse.

You Get What You Pay For

Others ways to deal with SPAM have been put forward, including charging users to send email.  

Anyone who has taken ECON 101 knows that charging even an infinitesimal amount of money to send an email message would bring SPAM to a grinding halt. Because once you have to pay to send emails, the economics of SPAM go right out the window. 

This idea has been proposed many times. But it ultimately gets rejected for a variety of reasons: for instance, because it would dis-incentivize people and (non-profit) organizations who rely upon email to send important emails such as reminders and non-profit newsletters. Plus, it would be pretty darn complicated to enact.

Another suggestion is to impose an email tax on email marketers. The Yahoo! researchers proposed a model by which every email user would create a "whitelist" of acceptable senders, who can send emails without cost. 

Unsolicited emails would get hit with an "attention tax." The recipient could either accept the email in exchange for receiving the fee paid by the sender, or choose to read the email and waive the fee. All other emails would be discarded.

While this idea has promise, the researchers provided two reasons to reject it out of hand. First, cybercriminals could hijack legitimate accounts and collect the postage fees while ripping off legitimate senders. Second, the authors point out that, “by the time one takes into account the transactions costs of setting up an attention system, along with a much heightened incentive to hijack accounts, the overall welfare effects of such a change are unclear to us.” 

In other words, the solution is once again too complicated. The current SPAM situation might be best after all.

Protecting Our Scarcest Resource: Attention

The researchers got one thing right: the solution to the SPAM problem lies in recognizing that the scarcest resource is not bandwidth or storage, it’s attention.  

Consider that beyond email, Facebook updates, Instagram and Snapchat posts, and loads of other notifications all vie for people's valuable attention. Allowing people to focus on the most important notifications has become the critical problem to solve, not reducing the overall amount of email. 

Attention is perceived to be such a critical resource that a recently surfaced proposal in the federal court system looks to raise it to the level of a constitutional right. The proposal addresses email specifically:

“the right to deny attention when demanded, the right to be left alone, the right to not be spammed and the right to not receive ads when such advertisement is unwanted or uninvited, the right to waive the understanding of an agreement, the right to give consent without being informed, and the right to not be required to receive information against one’s will.”

Doomed to a SPAM Filled Future?

Are we destined to chronically struggle with SPAM email or is there a better way?

One idea is to drop email and move on to something else. There's no shortage of email alternatives out there, with Slack being the current pretender to the throne. 

But while dropping email may postpone the inevitable, it’s clear that any ubiquitous communication channel would eventually develop a SPAM problem. Besides, despite all the predictions about email’s demise, its universality makes it hard to walk away from. 

So rather than abandon email, vendors are taking a fresh look at helping users focus on what matters most within email.  

A new breed of email products help categorize emails automatically, so users can view the important ones first. These products separate emails from colleagues and approved senders into separate folders than solicited email newsletters. Unsolicited bulk mail and advertisements are relegated to even lower priority folders. 

Inbox from Google, Verse from IBM, and Spark from Readdle are just a few examples of products already providing these capabilities.

Another approach takes a page from the Yahoo! researchers playbook. With so many different apps and interfaces vying for attention, the problem is not filtering out bad emails, but providing a holistic view of the information. Rather than focusing on email, these products provide a broader view of available information to help users focus on what matters most. 

One such product is CloudMagic which allows you to see user profiles of email senders you may not know. It also enables you to save emails and attachments to other products like Evernote and Dropbox, all without leaving the email app. The idea is that by reducing the need to toggle between applications, you can retain focus and attention on what’s truly important.

It's About to Get Interesting

It’s important to remember that email (and with it, SPAM) isn't going away any time soon.  

Advancements in artificial intelligence, specifically in terms of natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning are fueling a new generation of smart email tools, which take a broader view of information. Expect quantum leaps in the capabilities next generation email programs offer.  

Email will not only remain a communications medium through which messages are shared, but the email client will evolve into a launchpad where many types of work gets done. IBM Verse may be the most advanced of these products, but this is only the dawn of a new age of business communications. New chat bots and other chat tools will play a role in this world, but they won’t displace email as a primary mode of communications.   

Stay tuned because it’s about to get interesting ….

Title image "spammebago" (CC BY 2.0) by  uberculture