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Commentary

The Junk E-Mail Epidemic

Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson got so fed up with unsolicited e-mail that he blacklisted dozens of PR professionals from his in-box. Barracuda Networks CEO Dean Drako has contemplated removing the e-mail address from his business card. Extreme measures? Not to those of us swamped with quasi-spam.
Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson got so fed up with unsolicited e-mail that he blacklisted dozens of PR professionals from his in-box. Barracuda Networks CEO Dean Drako has contemplated removing the e-mail address from his business card. Extreme measures? Not to those of us swamped with quasi-spam.In-boxes are being deluged with unwanted e-mail from legitimate sources -- marketing and PR professionals, research firms, technology vendors, retailers, media companies (yes, we're guilty, too), and others. Drako refers to it as "near-junk mail" because it tends to be well-intended business correspondence. These are not phishing scams or offers for Viagra; they're above-board inquiries that simply don't register on your priority list.

As far as I'm concerned, many such messages are just another form of spam, and whatever you call them, they're a productivity drain. I get 100 e-mails a day that are not spam in the traditional sense -- i.e., e-mail blasts sent by shady characters with questionable offers or criminal intent. One of the reasons quasi-spam is such a big problem is that spam firewalls have no way of recognizing it. They block obvious junk mail, but let near-junk mail through.

A few months ago, Wired editor in chief Anderson took the drastic measure of blocking e-mail from PR people who made the mistake of sending unsolicited pitches of no interest to him. "I've had it," Anderson wrote in his blog, kicking up a storm in the PR community. Anderson followed up with a post on the aftermath of his decision.

I asked Dean Drako what he could do about this. After all, spam blocking is what Barracuda knows best, even as it expands into new areas. But Drako's in the same boat as the rest of us. He avoids giving out his business card while at trade shows for fear that his e-mail address will propagate out of control, and he refuses to get sucked into online contact-management services like Plaxo that promise (threaten?) to expand his universe of loose professional contacts. "I'm not signing up," Drako says. "I've got enough things in my life."

From a firewall vendor's perspective, there's no simple solution to quasi-spam, since it's coming from legitimate sources. That puts the onus on the recipient. Anderson, for example, used the "block sender" feature in Outlook. Another survival technique is to unsubscribe from sources that offer that option. Both, however, are all-or-nothing measures.

The real solution requires a different way of doing things at every step along the way: E-mail senders using more discretion about what they send and to whom. Spam firewalls getting tuned to recognize and respond to near junk. And new features in e-mail clients that let you throttle back messages from people without blocking them completely. For example, a three-strike feature that gives senders a few warnings before blacklisting them.

Have you figured out how to manage unsolicited, untargeted, unwanted messages? Tips are welcome. Just don't e-mail me.