October 22, 2003

Spam: How it is hurting email and degrading life on the Internet

Part 7. When Spam Is a Big Problem

A quarter of Internet users consider spam to be a problem.

While just about every emailer complains about spam, we wanted to see who is particularly aggrieved by spam and why. We looked at the 25% of Internet users who, when asked to describe how spam has affected their life on the Internet, answered that it was a problem for them. The remainder of respondents reported that spam was “annoying, but not a big problem” (60%), or “not a problem at all.” Some 15% said that.

We gleaned a few general impressions about the “who” and the “why” of the most aggrieved. The impressions do not portray a single, clean profile for the particularly aggrieved spam hater. Rather, they point to a few factors in one’s Internet life that make it more likely for them to consider spam a big problem and suggest to us a few explanations of why that might be.

Those who consider spam to be a big problem are more savvy and experienced Internet users who have an expansive online life.

A look at the various traits of those most troubled by spam suggests that compared to those who are less troubled by spam, they are a bit more savvy and sophisticated about the Internet and spam, they lead a more experienced and expansive Internet life, and they have a somewhat more extensive presence online.

Those who consider spam a big problem are significantly more aware of spam than others (39% v. 23%). They know how to behave around spam: They avoid behaviors that attract spam such as posting email addresses online (78% v. 67%) and giving out their email address (81% v. 70%), and are more likely to set up email addresses that confound harvesters (19% v. 14%). They use separate email addresses for times they might attract spam (27% v. 22%). And they also do more to deflect spam: some 23% apply their own filters at work to block spam, compared to 16% of those who are less troubled by spam. About 43% apply filters to their personal accounts, compared to 34% of those less troubled. And further, they are more likely to do what they can to fight spam by reporting it to ISPs (32% v. 17%) or to a consumer or government agency (12% v. 5%).

Those who consider spam a big problem do more online: They are more likely to engage in a variety of Internet activities than others: get news, do online banking, download music, and use search engines. They are slightly more likely to have email accounts at work (57% v 52%), and have personal email accounts (89% v 83%), and much more likely to have multiple personal email accounts (36% v 26%).

More of those who consider spam a big problem have been online for a long time (51% of them for over 6 years) than those who are annoyed by spam (41% for over 6 years) or find it not a problem at all (31% for over 6 years).

One voice of experience speaks out on the situation:

  • “I feel bad for the beginners, just learning all the wonderful things about the Internet, the vast knowledge that can be found; and as they begin to go down the road on their quest for knowledge, they too are being stalked and somehow “collected”…I have used the Internet for years, and I have seen the surge of bad-blood rising.”

Why might the savvy and experienced be so troubled by spam? Perhaps because they remember the good old days on the Internet and resent the awkwardness that spam has imposed.

Those who consider spam to be a big problem are burdened by its volume or the time it takes up.

There is a reality behind the complaints of those who say spam is big problem; they are more likely to have some large measure of spam, either in the volume of spam and/or the time is takes to deal with it.

Of those who receive spam at work, 50% of those who consider spam a big problem say they get so much that it is hard to get to the ones they want to read, compared to 27% of the rest. In personal email accounts, 74% of those who consider spam a big problem say they get so much that it is hard to get to the ones they want to read, compared to 48% of the rest.

Of those who consider spam a big problem, 39% receive more than 30 emails a day, compared to 25% who are annoyed by spam, and 12% of those who do not find spam a problem. Further, more of them also say spam constitutes a high proportion of their email. Among those who consider spam a big problem, 48% say more than 60% of their inbox is spam, compared to 33% of those who are annoyed, and 19% of those who do not consider spam a problem.

Those who consider spam a big problem also spend a lot more time on spam. Some 44% say they spend more than 15 minutes a day on spam, compared to 24% of the annoyed and 16% of those not bothered.

These data suggest the obvious: people are more likely to consider spam a big problem when they get lots of it and /or when it takes up a lot of their time.

Those who consider spam to be a big problem consider email to be mission critical.

Spam seems to wreak more havoc and create more worries among those who rely on email for one critical reason or another. Those who consider spam to be a big problem are much more concerned than others about accidentally losing important email. Some 40% of them fear deleting it mistakenly compared to 24% of others. Some 40% of them fear inadvertently filtering it out compared to 27% of others. Their fears are not without reason; 20% of those who consider spam a big problem report that this has happened to them, compared to 14% of others. Another 34% of them are also more concerned that emails they send to others will likewise be mistakenly filtered out compared to 20% of others.

A large number of respondents to TRAC wrote that spam was seriously affecting, even threatening, their livelihood, which relied on a heavy email presence and email correspondence:

  • “I have been in business since 1994 and I cannot change my email address for business reasons…Currently, I average will over 50 unsolicited junk emails for every legitimate inquiry or comment from my customers. It is easy to overlook contacts from my users in all of the junk. I’m sure that this has cost me business from time to time but I’ll never know because potential customer queries, almost always from people I do not know, are lost in the spam….”
  • “I rely very heavily on email communication because I am in the IT field. Spam now costs me on average 1 hour per day. At my consulting fee of $125 per hour, that comes out to more than $45,000 per year…”
  • “Since my husband is a participant in a medical study currently, he frequently receives messages from the nurse coordinator concerning his schedule of treatments and appointments. The huge numbers of unsolicited and unwelcome emails increase the danger that we will miss or inadvertently delete one of these vital messages.”

Many Internet users have gone well beyond the gee-whiz reactions to the Internet and have made the Internet and email vital to their lives. Spam can do them great damage.

Those who consider spam to be a big problem often see the cup as half empty.

Those who consider spam to be a big problem tend to view many things in a pessimistic light. They tend to complain more vociferously about the nature of spam and about many other of life’s other annoyances as well

Those who consider spam to be a big problem are more likely to hate just about everything about spam. Significantly more of them are bothered by the following features of spam, compared to any other emailers: the fact that spam is unsolicited bothers 98% of those who consider spam a big problem, compared to 86% of those who are just annoyed, and 49% of those who are not bothered at all. There are similar trends for being bothered by deceptive or dishonest in content (91% v. 80% v. 54%); by the fact that spam can damage your computer (87% v 79% v. 62%); that their privacy might have been compromised (89% v. 76% v. 53%); that content can be offensive or obscene (86% v. 77% v. 50%); that emailers cannot stop spam, no matter what (92% v. 75% v. 42%).

Those who consider spam a big problem also consider many things to be big intrusions in their lives, including junk mail from the US Postal Service, telemarketing calls, and leafblowers.

This suggests some people show an erosion of tolerance about many things in life, and perhaps spam is just one of them.