Some Cultural Aspects
of Bulk Email

Bob Schmidt
Provider Marketing Group

I argue in favor of greater tolerance on the part of Internet users, the antispammers, especially.

After all, it wasn't so long ago (1950's) when everyone was concerned about de-personalization of society and life in general, deprivation of privacy and grave concerns about becoming a impersonal "number" (this was even before we all worried about becoming a "statistic").

In today's world with a multitude of phone numbers, credit card numbers, frequent flyer numbers, etc. etc. how quaint it seems to think the problem ever consisted of becoming a single number! What a luxury that would be.

Yet, today, our tolerance level is such that even dealing with a multitude of numerical identities is a matter of routine. We have adapted and integrated this into our culture. Now we look forward to "one number" phone service that, egad, knows our every move.

In McLuhan-esque terms, new media are always perceived as threatening and alienating, because they are disorienting and force us to turn our assumptions upside down and inside out, to perceive differently. The new media are always first understood in terms of the old media, thus we talk about web "pages" and electronic "bulk mail". We are only just discovering how these new media will transform the human experience.

Some antispammers operate under the fallacious assumption that the Internet is a noise-free communications medium. Yet the communications medium that is noise free has not yet been invented, and likely never will..

Some believe the problem with bulk email is that it will grow exponentially and they will be faced with sorting through thousands of email ads every day, just to get their "real" email. But this scenario can easily be compared to the telephone and the busy executive. While long distance charges and outbound calls are costly, local calls do not present a cost barrier. Many companies already employ a vast army of telemarketers. Why then does every business not receive a telemarketing call from every other business in town, every day-- the doomsday bulk email scenario applied to the telephone?

Or, perhaps you feel like you do, indeed, already receive too many telemarketing calls and you have your secretary screen them because you couldn't possibly run your business and answer every one of them. There was a time when secretaries did not take telephone calls. Of course, that was before the telephone had been invented. There is absolutely no reason why the same gatekeeper for other communications will not handle email correspondence as well.

In 1994, I predicted:

In the future, you will either have a public email address and a private email address (perhaps password protected receipt), or you will have someone screen (and routinely reply) on your behalf and mostly likely all of this will happen. Multiple email addresses will be as common as rotary lines. Indeed, mailboxes may be configurable to "roll over" in the same way.

Today, much of this has already come to pass with the proliferation of free email accounts available from Yahoo, Hotmail, and many others, which can be accessed via a web page from any computer connected to the Internet from anywhere, including points of free access such as universities and public libraries.

Today, email is perceived some Internet users, the anitspammers in particular, as a personal environment, an intimate, inner sanctum, indeed, a sanctum sanctorum, an extension of their most private thoughts. All the complaints of the antispammers basically boil down to issues of violating (de-personalizing) their "personal email space." Right now they are "shell shocked." With time their tolerance level will increase, though no doubt some will adjust better than others. Some will find it an intolerable environment regardless and will have to go off-line to maintain psychic equilibrium.

Note that the hypersensitives are typically the long time Internet users who have a frame of reference to compare with today's email environment. They are the first Internet nostalgics, what McLuhan called looking at the future in a rear view mirror-- they harken back to the good old days of the Internet and are determined to bring it back. There is, of course, no way to do that. The cat is out of the bag, and will not be put back in.

The fact is, everyone gets more email today than ever before, email of all types, personal and commercial, "solicited" and unsolicited, and it will only increase. The antispammers ask how will they handle 1,000 bulk emails a day. To which I reply, how do you know it will happen?

Perhaps the better reply, and the more likely scenario is, how will you handle the 1,000 "solicited" emails you will soon be receiving? I already wade through almost that many now, between 5 online services and numerous listserves. 99% of all of it -- less than 2/10ths of 1 percent is spam -- gets the delete key-- and that's after I read it, not before. A couple of bulk emails, a couple hundred bulk emails a day, I wouldn't even notice. I've dealt with this for more than 5 years. If I had to get all worked up and retaliate against every instance of excess, abuse, flaming, spam and just plain stupidity I've come across in just the last week alone, they would have to put me in straight jacket.

Note: While I do not hesitate to provide some "equal time" on this subject and argue the merits, I do not especially advocate the use of bulk email. Neither, however, do I begrudge the efforts of those who are experimenting to see if it works. We all need to know.

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Last updated: 04/25/10