What is the definition of spam?

In the most technical sense, unsolicited emails advertising something, usually a commercial enterprise, that are sent out indiscriminately are clearly considered spam. However, in this age of endless email, most have a much broader definition of spam and those who email as much as I do can probably be heard calling any annoying emails spam. These email messages may even be sent under a legitimate umbrella, but once they become too frequent and completely unwanted, once they lose whatever initial value they may have had, they become spam. For example, if you buy something from an online vendor, they might begin to automatically send you followup emails on sales, deals, etc. While you may be interested in them at first, too often do online retailers abuse their relationships with their customers and end up sending too many emails with too little relevant information. In the end, you find yourself unsubscribing from all emails from the vendor, afraid that subscribing to even one newsletter or list will result in another onslaught of spam. In this case, the emailing isn’t completely indiscriminate since you provide your email address and establish a relationship with the sender through your purchase, but most people would consider those messages as spam. But this is old hat to those of us who regularly shop online– if given a choice, I always uncheck all options to receive promotional emails or any other communication from vendors outside of information about my orders– and we accept this constant process as a tradeoff for doing business online.

But what happens when it gets personal?

Two years ago, I attended a large New Year’s Eve party that was thrown by a group of semi-professional party throwers. Expensive tickets were purchased online and black tie was worn. Unfortunately, as a result, I was unwittingly subscribed to one of the organizer’s personal email list for advertising events. I didn’t make the connection between attending that party and getting on this mailing list until recently since there were a number of organizers whose names I can’t remember, but I have been getting emails from this person that I had never met before in my entire life ever since. The emails seemed to be personally addressed (using a suppressed recipient list rather than a formal mailing list) and there wasn’t an easy way to unsubscribe– sure, I could probably respond to the email and ask to be removed, but when it comes to spam, I don’t like to respond and make myself known. In most cases, it only increases the spam exponentially since then they know there’s a real person behind the email address.

In any case, I’ve been putting up with these emails for two years and they were getting more and more frequent as the latest event being advertised, this year’s New Year’s Eve party, neared. So, I finally responded to the email and asked to be removed from the list. Who knew that it would result in the ridiculous email exchange below?

My original request:

Please remove me from your list. You have subscribed me under [email address].

To which I received the following response:

Hello Sindy,

May I ask why you would like to be taken off my list?

Now, I would have preferred something more along the lines of, “You have been removed from the list. Out of curiosity, why would you like to be taken off of my list?” I would have considered that an appropriate and prompt response to my request and if I chose to, I could give him some exit information for his own purposes. Instead, I have now been pulled into participating in this guy’s own little marketing research survey and still didn’t have my request honored. Nevertheless, I simply responded:

I never asked to be added to this list and I am not interested in these events.

At this point, this should have certainly been sufficient and I should have been removed from the list. Instead, I received another followup message:

Hi there Sindy.

I apologize if you received my email by accident. I sent this to my friends and anyone who has attended my parties the past few years. I throw 2 parties each year, my annual Tailgate party at the Giants game and my annual New Year’s Eve party. I have your email address either because you went to one of my parties or you asked me to send you info or one of your friends requested for you.

Did you look at my party this year? Let me know what you think.

So, I finally realized how I had gotten onto the list in the first place, but that didn’t make this entire exchange any less annoying. I mean, what part of “remove me from your list” do you not understand? And certainly, if I was responding to your messages about this year’s party with a request to remove me from the list entirely, then I’ve probably taken a look and am not interested. So, I responded with the following message:

I may have been added to your list from having attended a New Year’s party 2 years ago, but I don’t recall ever asking to be added to the mailing list and even if you were to automatically subscribe me, I think an explicit request to remove me from your list should be sufficient. It’s ridiculous that you are making me jump through hoops to be removed. I am not interested in the events that you have been sending me emails about for 2 years and even if I were, I’m certainly not interested now. This is nothing short of spamming. Please remove me from your list.

Now, I was completely riled up and had decided that I would most certainly post this exchange here, expose this guy for the spammer that he was, and spread the word that nobody should go to his party lest they be supporting a spammer and be sentenced to annoying emails for the rest of time. However, he sent the following response that, while very misguided, was at least polite and so I’ll refrain from actually naming him here, posting his email address, or mentioning the actual event (although many might be able to figure it out):

Thank you for your eloquent response Sindy.

My list is my own personal list of friends and friends of friends. There is nothing corporate or spam-like about it. If you received this email, it is because you personally attended one of my parties or a friend recommended you attend. I apologize you have jumped through hoops in order to be removed. Your hoops are my attempt to get to know who you are. I apologize for that and will remove you from my personal list as it is crystal clear you want no part of me or the parties I create.

Have a terrific rest of the week and Thanksgiving. Enjoy your New Year’s as well.

Personally, I think what is and what is not spam is in the eye of the recipient. In this case, my relationship with the sender was a loosely personal one because while I had attended an event that was held by that person (among others), but so did several hundred, maybe even thousands other people and most of us probably have never actually met the organizer. Nevertheless, messages from your friend are not immune to being considered spam. Case in point: if a friend emails you to see if you’d like to buy one of his homemade t-shirts, that may be considered an unsolicited email advertising a commercial product, but since he’s your friend, you probably wouldn’t consider it spam. However, if he continues to send you email every week, continually trying to sell you his latest creation despite the fact that you continually choose to NOT buy one, you would probably start to find it annoying. At that point, you might say to him, “Could you stop spamming me with these emails?” And suddenly, what began as a simple friendly email has become that vicious thing we know as spam. Sure, its not as bad as some of the Viagra, penis enlargement and debt consolidation spam that plague us all, especially if he promptly honors your unsubscribe request, no questions asked, but in the broadest sense, its still spam. And the fact that you have a personal relationship with the spammer, that you actually know this person, doesn’t necessarily make it any better– it’s almost worse because you might be likely to not take future messages from this person as seriously or you might even be inclined to ignore them completely.

In the end, our ability to send valuable, useful messages becomes increasingly important everyday. With email becoming an increasingly important part of people’s everyday lives, being a trusted point of communication is essential. When you send out messages indiscriminately, when you abuse the convenience and power of email, you’re only losing stock in yourself.