The author bravely scans one junk E-mail each day for a week to see if random offers can teach us something valuable about life and commerce.
That file in your inbox marked "HI this is for you" is definitely junk E-mail. I know it, you know it, Bob Dole knows it, and the no-neck geek who sent it to you at 4 a.m. knows it. So why are you opening it? The phone is ringing, America's at war, unemployment is climbing, the stock market is drifting sideways, the economy is in recession--and here you are, reading unseemly blather.
Officially, your position is that junk mail is a time sink. But then one Monday, with a spastic flick of your cursor, you open an innocuous E-mail entitled The Stainless Steel Network. Maybe you're irritated by it, but you're also curious to know how you ended up on this absurd list.
What does junk mail have to teach us, if anything, about life and commerce? The realist in us says most of it is a waste of time. It's unproductive, uneducational, and vaguely demeaning. On some higher level, our liberal sensibilities dictate that there shouldn't be unsolicited notes, only an opt-in request. Yet our "inner Libertarian" says it's a free marketplace, so give junk a chance.
I decided to spend a few minutes surveying my inbox, selecting one come-on each day for a week, potpourri, to see if a gem is going unread. Like you, I see upward of 100 E-mails a day, nearly one-third of which is complete pap (and that doesn't count some wacky press releases). I delete these en masse, the way Arnold Schwarzenegger mowed down bad guys in his movies.
The big question: Are you missing anything worthwhile?
Day One: Steel the Real Deal The content of this E-blast isn't deceptively simple, it's just simple: It purports to itemize recent purchases on buystainlessonline.com, in "$USD per Pound." Boring, eh? But what if they know something you don't? And, scanning through the E-mail, you smell a whiff of a bargain that vivifies your senses:
"BLOW OUT ITEMS OF THE MONTH:
4000# ARCOS MONEND 187(CUPRO NICKEL) 5\\32 $3.00\\LB.
15,000# ALLOY ROD 8018C3 3\\16 X 10# CANS $.40\\LB.
10,000# ALLOY ROD 7024 7\\32 $.25\\LB
10,000# AFROX 7018 3\\16 .25\\LB."
Is that steel a steal? Possibly, but given that I don't work at SteelWeek, it's impossible to know. Maybe the Stainless Steel Network knows something we don't. Alas, it doesn't. It's just boring us to tears and it has bought the wrong list with my name on it. I could opt-out of the Stainless Steel Network E-mail list, but then I would miss out on next month's specials.
Day Two: If it's Tuesday this must be Jaya
"This is to announce that the Harmonisation Process Clinic, (alternative & complimentary medicine) located in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, is now open for service. This will unfailingly bring hopes for a lot of those afflicted with incurable diseases."
Again, outside my area of expertise. I am suffering from several incurable diseases, but none are pressing enough to justify the excursion to Malaysia. I probably won't be able to expense it either. Not quite a waste of time, if you're partial to the exotic junk mail.
Day Three: Home of the Red, White, and Blue.com
"Don't miss out on this ONCE IN A LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY!!! Not only can you now support OUR economy, but also get THE URL that matches the format of the ENTIRE REST OF THE WORLD!!! The United States is the ONLY country with .com or .net as the STANDARD extensions for its URL's!!! Canada (.ca), Korea (.kr), Cyprus (.cy), Taiwan (.tw)... FINALLY we have access to .usa!!!"
Whew. How unpatriotic of Walmart.com not to also offer walmart.usa. I guess I'll have to buy my flags elsewhere. Just kidding, Sam. I hope the House Unamerican Web Committee doesn't convene before Wal-Mart rectifies the situation. I wonder if SteelWeek.usa is registered? No ifs, ands, or buts, this is another time sink.
Day Four: Will the Wonders of Science Never Cease?
"NEWS from AmpCast.com/RcolinJohnson
"PLASTIC MAGNETS: world's first demonstration"
Andrzej Rajca, chemistry professor at University of Nebraska, discusses the world's first plastic magnet which he made by aggregating especially designed organic molecules into a bulk material. Over 13 years of focused research enabled him to lay claim to the world's first plastic magnet, despite vigorous competitive research projects in Japan, Europe and elsewhere in the U.S."
From here it links to some kind of presentation, reportedly by Rajca, inventor of the plastic magnet. You won't read about this kind of innovation elsewhere. What will they think of next: liquid magnets? Maybe we should put Rajca together with the Plastic Network folks.
Day Five: THANKS TO THE COMPUTER AGE AND THE INTERNET!
"Before you say "Bull", please read the following: This is the letter you have been hearing about on the news lately."
"To my astonishment, I received total $310,470.00 in less than a year, with money still coming in." Pam Hedland, Fort Lee, New Jersey."
I'm astonished by that, too, Pam. Because if even one word of it were true we wouldn't be working for a living, we'd just be dreaming up E-mail scams.
On the other hand, some of the pitches I receive are so offbeat they bring a smile. While I can't vouch for the veracity of the E-mail come-ons I see each day, I can save you the trouble of feeling guilty about wiping them out. That's why we have columnists, isn't it, to sift through the cyberjunk of life?
Rusty Weston is editor of InformationWeek.com and InformationWeek Research. What's your perspective on the value of junk E-mail? Tell us at the Listening Post.
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